[OPINION] The rise of Filipino pop psychology
Mental health is too important to be left entirely in the hands of academics or professionals. But our growing worship of self-styled psychology gurus is alarming.
In our wish to understand and explain difficult feelings and thoughts – in a culture that largely prefers to silence them – we look to popular Western labels and powerful metaphors for relief and validation. It is not enough to feel sad. Let’s call it depression. It is not enough to worry. Anxiety is sexier. Thinking of death or dying? You must be suicidal.
Transient indigenous experiences are commodified into Western permanence. Instead of genuine empowerment – transferring the power from professionals and resolutely placing it onto patients and their families – we retain the status quo in the guise of “improved services” and the “human rights approach.”
Psychology then becomes the tool. It dramatizes our life stories – and thus can be more personally recognizable and accessible than other sciences. The advice of local professionals might reveal aspects of our inner lives that feel true. It is fundamentally a science – a systematic way of exploring and discovering our feelings, thoughts and behavior. (READ: [OPINION] A psychiatrist's view: Common misconceptions about mental health)
Pop psychology is a different species. What sets it apart from psychological science is that it lends an air of being vaguely academic but is more consistent with self-help ideology.
“Positive thinking” and “self-care” are elevated into incomprehension and are repackaged as wellness. This is as helpful as Efficascent oil for every ailment. The pop psychology guru is a modern albularyo. (READ: Is the Philippines ready to address mental health?)
Take toxic. “Toxic relationship,” “toxic masculinity,” “toxic work” – is everything toxic? We showed virtually no search interest in “toxic Filipino culture” since 2004, according to local data from Google Trends. However, between July and December 2018, the term gained peak popularity. The word “toxic” oversimplifies our experience whilst simultaneously complicating it. This is the hallmark of pop psychology. The word is not well defined, but it is uttered with such confidence as to be the singular blame for our malcontent. It is clickable, it is searchable, it must be true.
Pop psychology feels true, but truth and fact are not the same. It is a false antidote.
Exposure to social media does not help. Filipinos are among the savviest in the churn of likes, posts, and tweets. But the sheer volume of information – and blatantly fabricated misinformation – makes us vulnerable to the illusory truth effect. The more we see the information, the more we tend to believe it to be true. It is then wildly flung around on social media and claimed as fact. Pop psychology incubates this believability.
Nonsense is its backbone. This underscores our limited skills as well as discomfort – academics and professionals alike – to prioritize and apply indigenous psychology because it is easier to use Western concepts – the basis of much of our academic and clinical training – albeit distorted. This is further complicated by professionals’ uncanny ability to maintain the moral high ground and by academia’s equally laughable inability to get off the ivory tower. This breeds resentment and distrust against the so-called elite. Psychology is a science for the privilege.
The guru fills this gap. So-called influencers, people with the conceit to call themselves “public figures,” and anyone with sufficient self-regard to claim their “issues” as credentials to dole out advise high-jack the narrative – at a time when we want Filipinos to regain their trust in science. They are no better than the wellness-industrial complex peddling vitamins and other products of dubious value with the audacity to still say “no therapeutic claims.”
We should not mistake sharing our own personal struggles from the nonsense of pop psychology. Sharing stories builds empathy. And in fact, we need more Filipino writers like you – and we need you now. And our rich oral tradition means that we can re-story mental health as the protagonist against stigma. But personal struggles of depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems can complement but should not substitute for evidence-informed comment.
The challenge for psychology is that its jargon does not easily fit into the world of sound bites and opinions valued by posts, shares, and links. Yet Gestalt Therapy or “holistic care” rolls off the tongues of local professionals as easily as “healing” and “closure.” These are as empty in their promises as “person-centered” in primary care.
The dangers are real. It can lead us to postpone effective care. It can invalidate our genuine feelings and thoughts. You cannot positively think your way out of a suicide attempt. This ought to be an exciting time for mental health specific to our worldview and way of life.
This ought to be a time when sikolohiyang Pilipino leaps forward. Instead, indigenous psychology is being pushed further back. We are losing a chance to self-correct decades of missed opportunities and to avoid the mistakes of the past.
You can bet pop psychology will exploit that. – Rappler.com
Dr Ronald Del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health, and health policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.