How the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Filipinos’ mental health

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The battle against COVID-19 is a highly unusual circumstance with the capacity to challenge and destabilize anyone, especially those with preexisting mental health problems. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much of our daily lives in a short span of time.

Entire sectors have been affected, leaving many in a state of uncertainty with regard to their employment. Angelo is a researcher whose project has been put on hold indefinitely. “We're already contractual, and I heard rumors that our contracts won't be renewed anymore because no work can be done anyway. I'm lucky to be able to survive without work, pero paano na yung iba? I can't even work on anything at home because of the anxiety. It's stressing me out.”

On the other hand, there are those who need to report to work and school amid the global crisis. Cat* is a medical student whose school opted to continue their examination week despite the national crisis. “My classmates and I feel emotionally and mentally overwhelmed by everything going on around us, on top of the usual anxiety that comes with exam week. It’s hard not to constantly beat yourself up for feeling helpless and unproductive in the face of an unprecedented crisis.”

As we navigate the situation, ensuring our basic needs are met while practicing health precautions, we are bombarded with live updates and developments on the global pandemic. It’s only right to be ready and keep informed — but there is a clear undercurrent of stress and anxiety that isn’t being talked about as much as it should be.

Mental health service users need support

Iman, a freelance theatre actor, has felt her anxiety worsening in light of recent events. It has gotten to a point where she would conflate anxiety symptoms with those of the pandemic: “Everyday I think that I got COVID-19, tapos nabigay ko sa family ko. Kasama kasi yung difficulty of breathing sa symptoms ng anxiety.”

Joseph*, a gym staff member, has spent the last year working on managing his anxiety enough to go out of the house: “For two or three years I've been a shut-in, and now I'm back to that. I feel like a lot of progress is slowly being undone. I've been developing systems for my anxiety so I can deal with commuting and interacting with people outside, but now they have to be rewritten.”

“The collective stress and anxiety are normal reactions to an abnormal situation,” explains Dr. Violeta Bautista, a clinical psychology professor and private practitioner. She says that the battle against COVID-19 is a highly unusual circumstance with the capacity to challenge and destabilize anyone.

However, having preexisting mental health problems may make one more vulnerable to the stress. “Kung meron ka nang dalang bagahe at nangyari itong kakaibang sitwasyon, mauuga ka ulit,” explains Bautista.

The move to telemental health

Apart from teaching and holding a private practice, Bautista is also the director of University of the Philippines Diliman’s Psychosocial Services (UPD PsycServ). Given mental health service users that may need additional support as well as the general stress pervading the population, PsycServ has begun to offer free telepsychotherapy services to UPD students, faculty, staff, and COVID-19 frontliners. PsycServ was initially limited to the UPD community, but has opened their doors to those in the frontlines of the global pandemic.

“When social distancing was implemented, we said that life goes on, and we need to continue to make our services available to our clients,” says Bautista. “Some of them continue, some of them are new, and some opted to wait until face-to-face sessions could be conducted again.”

Telemental health, the use of telecommunication technologies to provide behavioral health services, has been gaining traction in the Philippines. While the shift to telemental health in the Philippines is a relatively new one — with some services prompted by the effects of COVID-19 — there have been existing crisis lines by government and non-government organizations.

The following are telemental health services for those seeking help while keeping safe:

InTouch Community Services: offers teletherapy and web counseling services
Mindcare Club: offers telemental health through online videoconferencing
UPD PsycServ: offers free telepsychotherapy services for UPD students, faculty, and staff, as well as COVID-19 frontliners

For immediate assistance, contact the following crisis lines:

National Center for Mental Health:
989-USAP (8727) for landline
0917-899-USAP (8727) for mobile

Natasha Goulbourn Foundation’s HOPELINE:
(02) 804-HOPE (4673) for landline
0917-558-HOPE (4673) for mobile
2919 (toll-free number for all Globe and TM subscribers)

InTouch Crisis Line:
8893-7603 for landline
0917-800-1123 or 0922-893-8944 for mobile

There are also helpful guidelines searchable online, such as this guide from the World Health Organization and this Coronavirus Anxiety Toolkit by Shine.

Still much work to be done

The vulnerabilities and dangers of COVID-19 notwithstanding, Bautista hopes that through PsycServ, she can foster self- and mutual-helping strategies, compassion, and altruism through the telepsychotherapy sessions and resources that they disseminate. However, she points out that there are still gaps in accessibility to services: “I would like us to think about how these are all middle class. We need to think of more accessible programs and ways to access all sectors, especially the marginalized.”

Chico, a research assistant, observes, “It’s so easy to be disappointed in our response systems towards the outbreak. It makes me, and so many others, angry that people need to deal with their physical health — what more with their mental health? Most of our people already struggle on a day-to-day basis, and the virus hits the disenfranchised the hardest.”

Despite his constant battle with mental illness, Joseph acknowledges, “I'm very privileged. Of my anxieties, hindi kasama ang food, security, and job after all this has blown over.”

With increased awareness and the passage of the National Mental Health Law (RA 11036), the Department of Health recognizes the need to address not just physical, but mental health during this time of national crisis. Bautista explains, “There are efforts being done to identify the needs of the marginalized. There is now an inter-agency response; there is engagement of not just the government but also civil society. Since there is a disaster, we are working to activate DOH’s mental health cluster to respond to those needs, since COVID-19 affects more than just the physical.”

*Names have been changed upon the request of the interviewees.