The Church, the Government and Mental Health (Opinion by Marl Reston)

Disclaimer: The view and opinion expressed here are solely from the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Keep Going Baguio.

I am writing this as someone with diagnosed mental disorders and as an advocate-activist. This is a reaction to the news that came out a few days ago about the concern of The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) chief, Carlito Galvez Jr. on the alarming reports of suicide cases in our country recently due to the pandemic. He relayed his concern to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and both government officials believe that the government needs to seek the assistance of the church and religious leaders to provide counsel and guidance to their flock.

This news has created an uproar in social media mostly from mental health advocates, mental health providers, and also from many individuals who suffer from mental health disorders. The reason for this is, the church in general is not well-equipped to provide the necessary counseling needed by someone who is suffering from mental health conditions and is suicidal.

Depression and anxiety disorder are the most common cases today due to the pandemic. Both are classified as illnesses and should be handled by professional mental health workers (psychiatrists and psychologists/psychotherapists) who are trained and licensed to address those issues.

The church in general, with very few exceptions, tends to over-spiritualize the issue of mental illness and suicidal tendencies. Church leaders have a tendency, again not all but most, to invalidate, trivialize and dismiss depression and/or anxiety as a product of lack of faith or prayers. Such an approach can only do more harm than good. This will result in self-blaming, shaming, and fear which will only lead the person seeking counsel to distance or isolate himself/herself.

In most of the criticisms that I’ve read regarding the news, the focus is on the lack of capability of the church to handle the situation, the reason for which I already explained above.

I would like to focus more on the decision of the two government officials to seek the help of the church. It gives us a clear picture of their incognizance, or should I say, ignorance about mental health issues. Not only that, but it showed how they’re quick to pass the responsibility to other institutions when in fact, the government is responsible for looking after our general well being and of course, that includes our mental health. Have they forgotten that we already have our Mental Health Law ( RA # 11036)? I believe that the best thing the government can do at this time with regards to the rise of suicide cases is to take mental health seriously by implementing the Mental Health Law. Health should be in the top three priorities of the government on budget allocation — it is #6 on the current budget. The government should recognize the importance of collaboration with the mental health community. There has to be a unified multi-sectoral (including the church) effort to address mental health in the country. Until then, we can’t expect a “flattening of the curve” in suicide cases.

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