Following the sudden death of a Korean celebrity due to suicide in January 2018, a Facebook page run by a Philippines-based Christian sect posted what seemed to be their response to the unfortunate event. The quote was clear and straight to the point: “Suicide is only for fools who do not believe in the power of God,” followed by the hashtag “#ThereIsHopeNoToSuicide.”
How problematic and harmful this statement is should be self-explanatory at this point, but since some people apparently still need to hear it, let’s start with this: mental illness is not a matter of faith, or lack thereof. You’d think that people know better by now that psychiatry and neuroscience have long debunked argument that mental health is heavily reliant on religion, but rather is a matter of science. And yet, some conservative communities, particularly religious movements, unsurprisingly continue to cling onto outdated principles. Let’s not forget that some of these people still believe that homosexuality is a mental illness, much less a sin. This goes far beyond the issue of mental health and religion, and dives into the discourse of identity politics.
As an agnostic living in the Philippines and someone diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder with traits of Borderline Personality Disorder, the struggle is multi-layered. Mental health continues to be a crucial social issue, especially in a nation that takes pride for the religiosity and resilience of its people. It’s not uncommon to hear the elderly speak of depression as a result of weak faith, and that mental illness is but a matter of personal strength. Personal strength is often being related to unwavering faith in a god, and we have to remind ourselves of what political theorist Karl Marx said about religion: that it is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions…the opium of the people.” Religion gives people something to believe in, in the midst of their struggle as an oppressed collective—an illusion that keeps them going.
Generally, it seems that there is always a need to have another entity to focus on, to address and give credit to: a middleman of some sort between us and change, something concrete, as if it’s so difficult to believe that a person can recover solely by himself, with the aid of psychotherapy and medications. Needless to say, religion undoubtedly can be the most effective medium to satisfy this need.
Nevertheless, this is where the problem lies: in the fact that people continue to refuse to acknowledge that not everyone finds personal strength in faith, and this harms those with other, if not clashing, beliefs. Saying that religious sects have a tendency to forward exclusivity, especially in places where they are the dominant voice, is nothing new; a handful of their upheld principles only benefit those under their arc. As an institution whose influence remains intact, at least in the context of the Philippines, their opinions continue to matter and affect matters of national policies that ought to answer societal issues such as mental health.
As the Philippine Mental Health Bill is on its way to ratification, why is there still a need to still discuss this issue? Even if we get a national policy on mental health, if the stigma prevails, as perpetuated by religious institutions, the benefits and supposed positive effects of this policy may not be fully realized.
First thing to be wary of is the implementation of the bill. Included in the bill is the plan to start execution on a local level, which means that barangay clinics and medical facilities will be tasked to hold mental health programs for their constituents. Mental health education will also be integrated in the general curricula of schools. If misconceptions on mental health remain prevalent among members of the committees in charge of implementation, how then can we expect it to be effective and efficient?
More than educating individuals with preconceived notions of mental health in attempt to elicit a significant change in how they perceive mental health, we should also acknowledge that the problem does not lie solely on the surface, that this must be a continuous, consistent pursuit. Much like how habit-forming takes time, breaking the stigma will need ample time and effort from advocates, practitioners, and legislators alike.
There is a need to appeal to them not only through objective information, but also through emotion: show them that they are personally affected by problems concerning mental health, and thus will directly benefit in the objective to destigmatize mental health.
Photo: Alexander Lam