MH Law: Bluff or enough?

(Art by Anjali Piya)

Republic Act No. 11036 or the Mental Health Act of 2017 is already here. With a flick of a pen, President Rodrigo Duterte officially signed the passage of the said law last June 21. With mental health being my personal advocacy, I recall not being able to hold my excitement when I heard the news flashed on my Facebook newsfeed. The 3.3 million of Filipinos suffering with mental health disorders (according to a study conducted by the Golden Burden of Disease)  and the rest who need to maintain their well-being would finally be given priority after battling behind shadows. Many mental health groups, people with mental illnesses and professionals in the field of psychology such as psychiatrists, guidance counselors, and social workers also leaped in joy along with me in marking that significant day. However, all of us know the law is one thing. Implementation is another. Is it enough to urge us to act now?

I remember sitting on a bench at the second floor of the Student Center two years ago. It was after my last class in Biochemistry around seven o’clock in the evening. I couldn’t shake off what my professor had asked from me when I was absent during our last meeting. I said I wasn’t feeling well and that I had gone to the College Guidance and Counseling Center (CGCC) at that time. No more additional details. She might have sensed from my dark undereye circles, fidgeting hands and awkward stance that it was more than just “not feeling well”. Still, she asked for an excuse slip, but at that moment, I have none to give. She insisted that I must have something to present to her as proof. Low and behold, there isn’t any paper validating my mental health issues at school. If it was from the clinic, it would have been accepted. Neither did I had an upset stomach or a headache so there was no point going to the clinic instead. Our physical illnesses are far different from our mental health concerns.  

“There should be no more days for students like me to feel like they should be bottling up what they feel.”

The Mental Health Act of 2017 portrays the well-deserved acknowledgement of each Filipino who have suffered mental disorders and now are gone, validation of one’s present emotions and circumstances, and hard work of mental health professionals whom fought for our rights. At present, the Mental Health Law focuses on improving our mental health care services and raise awareness. In return, it has now become our shield. There should be no more days for students like me to feel like they should be bottling up what they feel. This meant the security of the rights and welfare of persons with mental health needs and mental health professionals; provision of mental health services down to the barangays; integration of psychiatric, psychosocial, and neurologic services in regional, provincial, and tertiary hospitals; improvement of mental healthcare facilities. Most importantly, the promotion of mental health education in schools and workplaces.

“No longer shall Filipinos suffer silently in the dark. People’s mental health issues will now cease to be seen as an invisible sickness spoken only in whispers,” says Sen. Risa Hontiveros, author and principal sponsor of the bill said.

The law is finally here but so far, it feels like it is merely existing. On paper, one can feel like he or she matters; however, what are the efforts being done in our school to make sure it is properly implemented? Don’t get me wrong, the Guidance Week organized by the CGCC was good because it’s an annual celebration of happiness and positivity; but was it enough? What are the specific steps and contributions that our school is making in order to fulfill its duty to the law? It has been quiet around the campus–too quiet–and there are still many who hide in shame.

“The law is finally here but so far, it feels like it is merely existing. ”

If we want change in our society, especially in terms of mental health, it must start from the roots, the place where we get our fundamental education–in schools. We must urge our school administrators to turn their heads toward reinforcing students who don’t only have excellent minds, but healthy ones too. What good is it to have students top the board exams at the cost of mental burnouts? Or worse, when some students fail subjects and are consumed with doubt and stress. Some students go to class who stare blankly because something happened at home and they can’t express it. Some students fight invisible battles and take medication to silence it.

“We must urge our school administrators to turn their heads toward reinforcing students who don’t only have excellent minds, but healthy ones too.”

Establishing a school policy that is based on the provisions of the Mental Health Law like developing programs designed to raise awareness on mental health issues, including referral mechanism of individuals with mental health conditions, to treatment and psychosocial support stated in Chapter V, Section 24,  will be one of the most crucial instrument and starting point in addressing the mental health of the students. Through the use of a policy, we can initiate protocols, guidelines and regulations in the campus which will aid every action leading to the development of our mental health care services. More than that, I believe it is important that everyone, including all faculty and staff, should be oriented about the said law. Awareness is key to this kind of change since it is fairly new and it ensures that everyone is on the same page.   

It’s not only the students who are susceptible to these negative feelings, but the teachers as well. They have gone through tough times in their workplace and we must not neglect that they can experience feeling stressed to the point it can be difficult to manage. In fact, we all need help and support. We all should feel open to seek it too.

It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Simply begin with seminars for teachers that may help them be educated with the necessary information on mental health. Our admins can strengthen student organizations who are already taking on the role of mental advocates by supporting their activities and hearing what they have to say. As long as it is visible and fosters open communication regarding mental health, it will always be a significant movement.

But the paper won’t move by itself. It’s the people, schools, and youth organizations who will deliver the change we all want to achieve.

Let us take action for as long as we are all willing to take part in the country’s continuous and yet new journey in mental health, we can make it happen.

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