mental health

[OPINION] Overcoming the barriers to our right to mental health

Tricia Zafra

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[OPINION] Overcoming the barriers to our right to mental health

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

'Studies published from 2002 to 2018 show that of every 100 Filipinos experiencing mental health issues, only up to 17 would seek professional help'

Republic Act 11036 or the Mental Health Law enacted in 2018 guarantees the right of Filipinos to “timely, affordable, high-quality, and culturally-appropriate mental health care.”

The same protects and upholds the rights of those needing psychiatric, neurologic, and psychosocial care.

But since coming into law, the creation of various programs and initiatives by the health department, and the COVID-19 pandemic that brought to light how anyone could be affected by psychosocial challenges, Filipinos seem to still have a long way to go in claiming and exercising their rights under this legislation.

According to the 2023 Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) Policy Brief on the country’s Mental Health Agenda, social stigma still affects the promotion of mental health among Filipinos, particularly, in seeking professional help.

When confronted with psychological concerns, Filipinos, whether in the country or overseas, think twice about seeking help because of the negative view associated with mental health problems (Martinez, et. al, 2020).

Contemplating whether to get checked or treated for mental illness involves a general feeling of shame, loss of face as a Filipino who is supposed to be resilient and self-reliant, and a perceived deviance from social norms where mental illness is still frowned upon (Martinez, et. al., 2020). This impacts the utilization of available mental health services (Martinez, et. al, 2020). 

Studies published from 2002 to 2018 show that of every 100 Filipinos experiencing mental health issues, only up to 17 would seek professional help.

Meanwhile, according to the 2021 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS5), among Filipinos aged 15 to 24 who attempted suicide, only 11% were aware of suicide prevention services and only 2% sought professional help.

Every year, thousands of Filipino lives are still lost to suicide; Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data show that from January to December 2022, 3,078 lives were lost to intentional self-harm. For 2020 and 2021, more than 4,000 deaths by suicide among Filipinos were recorded per year.

Aside from social stigma, the cost of treatment and medication is generally restrictive. Suppose you have overcome social stigma and have decided to seek help, you would now need financial resources. The more affordable therapy rates that cost P100 to P600 pesos per session already comprise a considerable share of the minimum wage in Metro Manila, not to mention difficult to secure (CPBRD, 2023). The usual rates for therapy sessions range from P1,000 to P4,500, and services are usually available only in the cities (CPBRD, 2023). 

Low public investment and spending have been cited as another barrier to promoting mental health rights. To help mitigate the costs of treatment, the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth) expanded its mental health benefit coverage from up to P7,800 of hospitalization (P5,460) and professional fees (P2,340) for certain disorders (CPBRD, 2023), to a yearly benefit of P9,000 for general mental health service, and an annual P16,000 package for specialized mental health care.

For 2024, Philhealth’s National Health Insurance Program has a proposed allocation of P101.5 billion, but bear in mind that this is not for mental health services alone. What’s clear is that the proposed 2024 budget includes P683 million for mental health care for 120,000 patients (DBM, 2023).

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Last, but certainly not least, it looks like we still do not have enough professionals to respond to the growing demand for mental health care. According to data collected by CPBRD in 2017 and 2020, the country has only two mental health workers (psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers, etc.) per 100,000 Filipinos. If you recall, in 2020, the health department said there were at least 3.6 million Filipinos suffering from mental health disorders.

While we are assured of our rights under the law, what use would it be if we cannot exercise these rights because of social and economic barriers? We can help ourselves and our fellow Filipinos by first, rising above our maladaptive social behaviors that stigmatize mental health issues. Let’s continue to normalize attention to mental health and illness in the same manner we regard and accept physical health and illness. Let’s continue to disseminate information about mental health on social media, call out inappropriate jokes that belittle psychological concerns, and encourage help-seeking even when it’s not Mental Health Awareness Month. By promoting social acceptance of what is, we can create a ripple effect to drive future prioritization of mental health care in terms of public spending and policy implementation. –

Tricia Zafra, RPsy is the Relationships Editor of She’s a journalist, psychologist, and university lecturer.

She’s currently a lead researcher-writer for VERA Files, a consulting clinical psychologist for Argao Psych, and a social science senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman Psychology Department.

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