mental health

[OPINION] Mental health and toxic Filipino culture

Dulce Marie Saret

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[OPINION] Mental health and toxic Filipino culture

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'Most of us do not know how to truly listen. But listening isn’t only about ability to hear others. It is also about listening to our own emotions.'

While on vacation from graduate school, I got invited to talk about mental health in one of the public schools in my home province in time for World Mental Health Month.

I’ve been out of the country for nearly two years so I had to do fresh research in preparation for the talk. 

I was happy to read about people talking about mental health (finally!) in our country, with advocates pushing for policy changes that will include mental health discussions in the school curriculum, conducting awareness talks, addressing the huge shortage of school guidance counselors, and pushing for increased spending on mental health to provide more and better facilities and well-trained personnel.

There is so much to be done to address the needs and gaps, starting from baseline research to determine the breadth and depth of this rapidly growing menace and finding ways to address the effects of the pandemic and its potential long-term effects. As a mental health counselor-in-training, I feel sad that our universities have yet to offer in-depth graduate-level evidence-based mental health counseling studies. There is a dearth of trained therapists who will help people journey through the complexities of the human condition towards healing. Our country needs trained counselors who will serve as advocates making the rounds to educate people and stimulate conversations that will break the stigma and change people’s perceptions about mental health.

One of my major takeaways from my talks is that while the stigma around mental health is universal, Filipinos’ attitude toward it is culturally rooted.

It is not uncommon to hear people make jokes about mental health. Whenever I tell people I am from Mandaluyong, the quick retort usually is: “Sa loob o labas?”, a reference to the National Mental Hospital, which is located in Mandaluyong City. It was a sick joke for me then; imagine how that remark makes me feel now.

My talks have revealed a double standard when it comes to mental health. When asked to comment on the statement, “Mentally ill people are crazy,” the supposedly “woke” say that people who manifest paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations are crazy but not those who suffer from depression and anxiety. The fact is that there is no difference between mental disorders. By the same token, there should be no double standard when it comes to overall health. Being mentally ill means having an illness with challenging symptoms, like diabetes or hypertension. 

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This misperception and insensitivity toward mental health manifested themselves in my first gig. During the workshop break, my niece showed me a photo of a Grade 9 student found hanging by a tree two barangays away. It was being circulated in a group chat. Things were made even worse by comments like, “Today’s youth are so weak!”

Our culture of machismo, of a perception of weakness for people who show “emotionality,” has brought us to this situation of alarmingly rising cases of mental health disorders and suicides. It is a societal menace.

A mental health condition has nothing to do with being weak or lacking willpower. It is not a condition people choose to be or not be in. In our highly judgmental society, it takes greater strength to admit we are not okay and that we need help. 

Unless we change our attitude toward mental health and learn to truly listen, we will fall into a deeper abyss than we already are in.

Our elders have taught us that “airing our dirty linen in public” is taboo, and that “enduring suffering” or being “matiisin” is a sign of strength. Hence, we find ourselves suffering in silence, keeping our emotions bottled up and expecting the same about our children. But we fail to realize that the world that surrounds our children, the scheme that affects their mental well-being, is so vastly different from ours has been. Most of us do not know how to truly listen.

But listening isn’t only about ability to hear others. It is also about listening to our own emotions. How many of us have gone to the doctor for some physical pain or discomfort only to realize that the symptoms were psychosomatic? Because emotionality is frowned upon in our culture, our emotional stress often manifests physically. I was forced to skip school and fly 6,000 miles to go back home because my nanogenarian mother was constantly sick. Her vital signs were excellent, but she was always unwell. A visit from me and the entire family, coupled with the application of for-elders therapy I picked up from school, were all she needed. Now she is filled with excitement to spend her coming 91st birthday dancing with her friends.

Depression, like many mental health disorders, can affect anyone regardless of age and socioeconomic status or of how good a person’s life appears to be. It comes from a complex interaction of social, psychological, environmental, and biological factors. So we need to learn to listen well to our own feelings, and the feelings of those around us as if we were in their situation – in counseling we call it emphatic listening – and then make the conscious effort to ensure that we are healthy not only physically, but equally importantly, emotionally, spiritually and, of course, mentally. –

Dulce Marie Saret is a US-trained life coach and mental health advocate pursuing graduate studies in counseling psychology at the University of San Francisco in California, USA. She can be reached at

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