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[IRL] BEING MENTALLY ILL DURING THE PANDEMIC

By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento


As in other legitimate corporations, employees of the media outlet Rappler enjoy health care benefits. What’s unusual is that even their mental health needs are covered. Those who want it, are provided with psychotherapy at the company’s expense. And that’s not just for this October, which happens to be Mental Health Month. Those nasty bayaran trolls and online bullies who cause so much psychological and emotional distress, never rest, and are gearing up for the campaign season.


Although the National Center for Mental Health has more beds (4,200 compared to the PGH’s 1,500) than most tertiary hospitals, conditions are still quite brutal, and not just because the NCMH chief Dr. Roland Cortez was gunned down in July 2020. Many NCMH patients are abandoned by their families. Our daughter had a rotation there as an occupational therapy intern several years ago. Women charity patients did not even have sanitary napkins. In the presence of the visiting student interns, the NCMH orderlies had the nubile female patients face off in giling-giling sexy dancing. My daughter and her classmates could only wonder what went on behind closed doors once they had left.


For the families of patients who need to be confined due to mental illness, getting them there during lockdowns is especially challenging as psychiatric facilities stop so-called “ambulance conduction” when alert levels are high. Finding a residential treatment center is tricky. Most private psychiatric facilities do not even allow families to see the room their relative will occupy. Before the pandemic, visits were allowed, but these were usually in a receiving area, like a parlor. Even in supposedly upscale facilities, charging monthly in the mid-to high five figures range for bed, board and light nursing supervision, the family doesn’t actually see where their loved one sleeps, bathes or dines—and now, only glimpses their relative in the Zoom box. Monthly fees do not yet include medication, doctors’ consultation or therapists’ fees. If the patient cannot manage her personal hygiene or feeding, then one must pay extra for a personal caregiver.


Fears of Covid transmission meant no small group activities like dining or watching TV together, for confined psychiatric patients. Exaggerated fears of fomite transmission from handling paper, scissors and paste meant the cancellation of art therapy, and no access to the reading materials in their admittedly shoddy libraries. Surely depriving patients of intellectual and sensory stimulation, as well as other social contact while confining them, does not help their mental health. If your patient is taking psychotropic medication, you might think twice before revealing this to the E.R. doctor screening her for Covid. This emergency medicine doctor said their general hospital could not handle mental patients and so if our relative who was taking psychotropic drugs tested positive, she would not be admitted.


Of course, not all mental disorders require confinement, or even medication. The discriminatory E.R. doctor must not know that there are almost 300 types according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5th Edition) from Neurodevelopmental Disorders to Schizophrenia and Depressive and Anxiety Disorders. Even garden-variety homosexuality used to be in the DSM until the 2nd edition in 1973.


It is anxiety (sakit sa nerbyos, sinisikmura) and depression, which most of us are familiar with, especially during these pandemic times. Even when the economy was better, most Filipinos can’t afford the thousands psychotherapists charge. The DepEd doesn’t even provide guidance counselors in every public high school. There are free resources one can find on Facebook: hotlines one can call for counseling or just to vent, meditation and mindfulness groups one can join although everything is online now. Smaller churches are even able to call up their attendees for personal kamustahan.


Also part of the DSM-5 are the Substance-Related Disorders, which include caffeine, tobacco and alcohol. Most Filipinos though would think that only the criminal use of substances such as marijuana, cocaine, shabu count. They don’t consider the adik-adik as mentally ill but pasaway, hence not in need of healing or rehabilitation. Or as PRRD has said, just kill them dead.


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Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (In Real Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction--but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.



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