Finally Having the Conversation

A discussion on the realities of mental health conditions in the context of Philippine culture

Mental health has become perhaps the most talked about issue in the past two years. News of social movements for raising awareness, policy changes, and shocking statistics pertaining to mental health conditions have resulted in the public’s cry for more open discussions about recognizing the reality of mental health in our lives.


Asia Society Philippines joined in the movement of raising awareness for mental health by developing an Asia Society Conversations program around it, named “Why Can’t We Talk About It?” Acceler8 Coworking saw some 40 gathered to hear from our esteemed panel of speakers, Senator Risa Hontiveros (Author and Principal Sponsor of R.A. 11036 ‘Mental Health Law’), Dr. Edgardo Tolentino (Psychiatrist and co-reviewer of the Mental Health Law), Zarah Hernaez (Licensed first aider and public speaker for mental health), and Roy Dahildahil (Co-founder of Mental Health PH). Moderated by Carl Javier (Author and Professor at the Ateneo De Manila University), the conversation brought together different organizations, service users, and educators to discuss mental health.


Despite many of the audience members having their own varying levels of knowledge about mental health, the statistics presented by the speakers still left many in attendance shocked. In laying the precedent for creating the Mental Health Law, Senator Hontiveros and Dr. Tolentino presented some staggering numbers: Only 7% of all hospitals in the Philippines (public and private) have dedicated psych wards. Suicide rates have gone up 16 fold for men and 9 fold for women since 2006, with 1 in every 4 adults each year experiencing some form of mental health condition. Most shocking of all is the ratio of doctors to patients needing care being 1 for every 250,000.


Though the numbers appeared daunting, the Senator and Dr. Tolentino both showed strong optimism in the fact that the new law was up to the task of providing people with adequate healthcare, community services, and accessibility to the aid it provides them.


“This is the first mental health celebration where the conversation has changed due to the Mental Health Law” stated Senator Hontiveros, “but the work is yet done” she continued then referring to the need for implementation of proper care services and updated data collection. Dr. Tolentino supported her claim by saying “We reviewed 73 iterations of this law, and [this] is the best one we could ask for.”


Taking a step back from policy, Roy and Zarah discussed personal dimensions of mental health in the Philippines.


“Mental [illnesses] can affect anybody” said Zarah. She followed this claim by sharing her own experiences battling depression, recalling that she never thought that she would be susceptible to mental illness. “Nobody checked on me… My family didn’t know because it was easy for me to pretend I was okay” she mentioned in reference to need for proper presentation due to social stigmas.


Roy mentioned that Zarah’s story was, coincidentally, a good example for the reason Mental Health PH uses social media as a platform to help raise awareness for mental health. His organization recognizes that people need help reaching out, given that Filipinos have yet to truly accept mental health as a reality today. With challenges like cultural stigmas and financial concerns for consultations, their online platform hopes to give people an opportunity to open up about how they feel without any judgement or presupposition of what that person might be experiencing.


All our panelists recognized how much work still has to be done, but could not help be but happy that these conversations were happening so often and so publicly now. They left us with some final words of advice, to reach out for help when you feel that something is not right, to be there for people who reach out to you with care and understanding, but most importantly to stand united in making clear that mental health is not a far removed concept of concern to a select few but to all of us.


In the words of Roy Dahildahil “It takes all of us to have an aware and mentally healthy community.”


Asia Society Conversations: Why Can’t We Talk About It? is co-presented by Asia Society Philippines and Acceler8 by Unionspace, supported by Shakey’s Philippines and San Miguel Beer.