Seventeen-year-old Ica Policarpio held social media, and the nation, captive with her sudden disappearance a few days before Christmas. At a coffee shop close to her family’s Alabang home, she approached a cashier, asked her to break a P1,000 bill, left when the cashier couldn’t, but also left her bag and all her gadgets by the counter.
She crossed the street, went into a convenience store, bought a bottle of water, left without a trace and vanished into the night. She surfaced 72 hours later in a coffee shop in San Pablo, Laguna, her image captured on a phone camera by another young person and blasted onto social media. Within 24 hours, she was found and brought to safety.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Ica’s older sister, Bea Policarpio, revealed that Ica’s behavior stems from a mental health issue that had apparently been festering for years:
“My sister Ica disappeared from home last Thursday night, Dec. 21, out of deep emotional distress. The reasons for her distress are numerous and honestly, private. She is still being evaluated medically, and it is our family’s sole responsibility to understand what has caused her to carry so much pain not just in the recent past, but apparently, for several months, and even years prior. Be assured that we are doing everything we can to make sure that she receives the medical attention and emotional support that she needs.”
It is a brave statement. Vulnerability takes a lot of courage to admit. It brings to our collective consciousness a story that is perhaps played out in many households across the country—untold stories of young and old people suffering from emotional pain and/or mental health issues.
When a person, young or old, faces emotional distress, the approach to healing must always be three-pronged: the loving support of family and friends, medical or professional evaluation, and, when necessary, medication.
Ica’s story is the story of many people. It is grace that she was found. Her family is humbly accepting that it may have missed the symptoms before, but are now doing everything they can to ensure she gets the treatment she needs.
We unknowingly meet many Icas every day, but due to lack of awareness, we respond in ways that can be destructive. How many family members refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem before it’s too late? It’s never easy to accept that there is a mental health issue in the family, but like any other disease, sensitivity, openness and early intervention are critical.
I myself have been guilty of this, of prejudging those who may have mental health issues, until I dug deep into my family history to discover that depression runs strong in our genes. It is an illness that has claimed the lives of two of my cousins.
It pays to know your family history so you can be more aware and proactive about the things you can do to manage or prevent it. Your genetics play an important role, but they also do not decide your future.
How then must we respond within our families and our communities? As Bea wrote in defense of her sister: “At this point, she does not deserve our blind judgment and hate. She is only 17 years old, still a child… If there’s anything positive that we hope can result from this experience, it is to raise awareness about the stigma of mental health and the growing culture of hate, which unfortunately exists in our country’s cyberspace and collective mind space. If anything, this hate culture is a desperate call for help. Let us answer this call with nothing but love, as difficult as this may be.”
To love and care for someone with a mental health condition requires a different, higher kind of love. It requires patience to the highest degree. I have very good friends and relatives who have lived or continue to struggle with depression, and it is very real. A few of my close friends are bipolar, and they are some of the most loving and caring individuals I have ever met.
It helps to educate yourself by reading books and articles (written by professionals, advocates or experts) or watching films about mental health issues. “A Beautiful Mind” is still the classic film on schizophrenia, while “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Infinitely Polar Bear” give a pretty accurate picture of life with someone bipolar, and the challenges and gifts that the condition brings to the patient and their families.
“Welcome to Me” is an engaging film on what its like to have Borderline Personality Disorder, and there are countless films on depression in the young such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “The Skeleton Twins.” Disney Pixar’s “Inside Out” is highly recommended because it’s well-made, easy to understand and puts mental health in a new context where one need not fear it.
As Neil Gaiman wrote in one of his New Year messages, “It’s too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand.” But in the same breath he encourages us to take the higher road in the New Year: “Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.”
Here’s praying for a kinder, joyful and hope-filled 2018 for all of us!