How one family endures generations of depression

Lorelei Baldonado Aquino
How one family endures generations of depression
Zena Bernardo has clinical depression. But what makes her depression even more difficult is that it is something three whole generations of her family experience.

MANILA, Philippines– Zena Bernardo’s father, Mang Romy, was the ideal family man. He was a loving son to his parents, a supportive kuya to his 5 younger siblings, a dedicated husband, and a nurturing tatay to his children.

Mang Romy and his family were not financially well-off, but he and his wife made sure that their children would have a good childhood.

In 1985, when his business went bankrupt, his wife was forced to leave her family behind to work for a government hospital in the Middle East.

Mang Romy’s apparent feeling of inadequacy as the family’s provider, coupled with the sudden death of his friend Lean Alejandro in 1987 and his sneaking suspicion that Zena, his then-19-year-old bunso, was pregnant, had taken their toll on him.

On December 22, 1988, just 3 days before Christmas, Mang Romy committed suicide.

His family had always known that Mang Romy was suffering from depression. However, as he was his siblings’ constant “one-man support system,” they didn’t think that he would, one day, succumb to the same silent killer that was taking his brothers and sisters one by one. (READ: Is the Philippines ready to address mental health?)

Before his death, 3 of his other siblings who also had depression had likewise died of suicide. Less than two months after his death, another one followed suit. The lone surviving sibling has been on medication for more than 3 decades now. (READ: A cry for help: Mental illness, suicide cases rising among youth)

The second generation of Bernardos

When Zena and her two siblings were younger, their parents would try to shield them from the realities of depression. But whenever they would hear that a relative had committed suicide due to depression, or when their own father would break or throw things one minute then hole up in his room for days the next, it became increasingly difficult to ignore.

Pretending that everything was normal became impossible.

When her mother left them to work abroad and her siblings became preoccupied with either studies or friends, Zena became her father’s constant companion and confidant. She heard about his frustrations, and bore witness to his episodes of depression. She became the family’s shock absorber. (READ: [OPINION] I’m an aspiring mental health professional, but sometimes I need help too)

She had many insecurities growing up. She later became a victim of bullying, sexual harassment, and physical abuse. She got pregnant at 19, and was blamed by everybody as the reason behind her father’s suicide. She was forced to drop out of college due to her delicate condition. Her marital life soon became problematic and toxic. Four children later, she decided to separate with her husband.

Through it all, she was silently suffering from and battling depression and bipolar disorder. To make matters worse, she felt that she had nowhere to turn to for help when she left her husband. Working overseas, Zena’s mother was not made aware of her condition, while her two siblings were also fighting the same illness that plagued the Bernardos. (READ: How does the PH fare in mental health care?)

She tried everything to single-handedly support her children. However, she realized that she could not get a decent-paying job without a college diploma. Once her two oldest kids were in high school, Zena saw an opportunity to go back to college and finish her education.

After she graduated as the class valedictorian, she worked for various companies and foundations, and actively supported countless advocacies. She can only work for short-term projects and on short-term jobs, though, as she tends to get overwhelmed when she has to stay long in a single place or be deeply immersed in the same kind of work. But once she starts, she is unstoppable.

However, like many others who have depression, she faces each day as if she is walking in a land mine. She has to tread carefully by guarding her thoughts every single minute of every day. (READ: [OPINION] A psychiatrist’s view: Common misconceptions about mental health)

The third generation of Bernardos

Mox is one of Zena’s 4 children and is her only son. Like his parents and most of his relatives from both sides of their family, Mox has a mental health condition, too. He was likewise diagnosed with clinical depression.

Mox is now living on his own. He cannot live under one roof with his mother or his sisters as they all trigger each other’s depressive episodes. (PODCAST: Batling depression and anxiety)

To those who are suffering from depression right now, Mox has these pieces of valuable advice: “Seek professional help. Listen to and love yourself more. Those who know and have survived through those moments have a special responsibility to help others who suffer the same condition. We’ve been through the void, we know how to help people endure nothingness.”

He also suggested that the best way to help those suffering from depression is to avoid forcing them to open up about their struggles when they don’t feel ready. (READ: What it’s like going for a consultation at the National Center for Mental Health)

“To families and friends, we don’t need uplifting words. [What we need] is help in getting through each day, one task at a time. It doesn’t help when people try to comfort us and force us to speak about our pain,” he said.

Zena adds that the Bernardo family has made it a point to know as much as they could about their mental condition, though they rarely talk openly among themselves about it. She shares that whenever they feel the urge to open up, they do so with trusted friends or romantic partners – those they refer to as their individual support systems. They also seek professional help. It is in cases of a relapse of a loved one that their awareness of and familiarity with the condition comes in handy. (WATCH: What can you do to prevent suicide?)

Love, understanding and kindness — these are the things that every person battling mental illness needs from everybody. Not judgment, pity and, definitely, not cruelty. –

Kaya Natin! Movement for Good Governance and Ethical Leadership, in partnership with the Sanggunian ng mga Paaralang Loyola ng Ateneo de Manila and in cooperation with Team Pilipinas, invites everyone to “AdvoKASI: Breaking the Myths about Mental Health” on October 19, 2019, 1–5pm at the Ateneo de Manila University. The forum, which is open to the public with free admission, aims to break the stigma surrounding mental health. For all those who are willing to help with Team Pilipinas’ other projects and outreach initiatives, you may email or call (0915) 3801977.

Lorelei Baldonado Aquino, 46, is a University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman alumna. She works as a freelance writer and an active volunteer for Team Pilipinas, a group established for those who want to do their own small share to be part of the solution to our country’s myriad of problems. She is also the blogger behind Mom on a Mission.

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