[OPINION] We are forgotten: On OFWs and mental health

Does anyone even care about us during these times?

This was the line echoing in my head while confined to my studio room in Phuket, Thailand at the height of the pandemic, November 2020. My breathing was labored; my heartbeat was like paradiddles; and my face was soaked in cold sweat. It's a feeling you just want to end – by any means necessary.

The next day, I called the only hospital in the city which had an outpatient consultation service for psychiatric cases. I asked if they honored my health card from work. They declined since my card was listed only for the government hospital, which had no psychiatrists to cater to me. Hence, if I wanted the services of the former hospital, I needed to shoulder all the costs for the consultation, possible cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, or whatever alternative that may be recommended, as well as the medications that would be prescribed.

I decided to save my money instead, and tried to figure out other ways to manage my onsets of panic, anxiety, and sadness. Everything has been tight since the pandemic started, after all. The exchange rate has been down to 20 cents of Baht since March 2020.

Every OFW understands the importance of a single cent. Saving it will have a huge impact on the budget of your family back in the Philippines. Being an Ilocano-Igorot also amplified my thriftiness, which I had been practicing since I started as a migrant worker back in 2015. Money is more important than my depression – that was my initial mantra.

Distressed OFWs

There is no known data on how many migrant Filipino workers are in distress at the moment, but with the growing number of news reports about suicides, we can say that something needs to be done for those of us working abroad.

For instance, on June 2, 2020, Melvin Cacho – a Filipino teacher in Notnhaburi Province, Thailand – took his own life. His suicide letter found in his room stated, “So stress[ed], anxiety, paranoid, family problem, job problem, money, failed dream. I can’t do this anymore. It hurts.” He was only 27 years old. 

Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) face many challenges that put as at risk for mental health problems. Upon arrival in a foreign country, we are already battling unfamiliarity – the environment, food, housing, culture. There are also cases of marginalization, racism or discrimination, and physical and emotional abuse. Also consider what Melvin further wrote: “No work, no pay.” Unfulfilled contracts, social isolation, stress, and extended working hours just add to the list. 

Now some may say that we chose this kind of life. Yes, we did, but does a soldier know he will die in battle upon signing up for the corps? He may have known the risk, but even he is tended to when wounded. Why, then, do we OFWs feel like we are forgotten? 

After my call with the hospital receptionist, I tried to check mental health crisis hotlines for OFWs. There were none. There were some numbers of private groups in Thailand like The Samaritans of Thailand, which has an English hotline for non-Thais. But I hesitated to call them. There was still this strong Igorot blood in me trying to deny my state-conquering, like my warrior ancestors had. I wanted to talk to a Filipino. I want someone who could understand the context. I want someone who spoke my language. 

I instead contacted Alcoholics Anonymous. At that time I resorted to daily alcohol consumption to aid my sleepless nights. I felt the need to sober up, and even though I initially thought that AA was not secular friendly, I tried to call someone from a local chapter. He talked to me and assured me that everything would be okay. He offered to bring me to a meeting and sponsor me. That didn’t happen because there was still this feeling that I didn't want to be a burden to anyone. It was an inviolable emotion abundant in me during that time. His words helped me, though, and I quit drinking.

Weeks passed and there were still days where I was down and having crying spells, but it was less worse, because at this point I was already trying to be healthy. But there was still the urge to talk to a kababayan aside from my family and relatives. I wished there was a help desk. I wished Philippine embassies would be more accommodating (a 24-hour hotline and less transactional approach). I began to ask questions like: “Is this too much to ask from our government?” “Are mandates of government offices like DFA, OWWA, and POLO enough to help us?” “If P1.2 million was used by OWWA to purchase supplies, can’t they spare a few thousand to set up hotlines or virtual support groups for distressed migrant workers?” 

In search of the Filipino virtual yakap, I finally found Keep Going Baguio Mental Health Warriors on Facebook. Since I am from Baguio, I searched for a group from the area. I owe my sanity to them. They have this virtual support group every Sunday and they just talk, share, and educate. That filled the gap in me that had long been empty. I joined them and promised myself to be a mental health advocate from that point on. 

These encounters with groups provided me with the strength to commit to a path of recovery. Practice soon followed, which taught me a lot of things, such as:

  • It is really important to talk to your family or anyone you feel comfortable with. They are your primary support. Admit that you are in distress. Find a person who will listen to you. 
  • Self-help books are also helpful since positive insights are what we need during this time. Try authors like Laurie Santos, Mark Manson, Stephen Covey, and the like.
  • It may be exhausting reading the news, so take breaks. What I did was to stop reading the news after 8 pm – this improved my sleep. 
  • Lastly, be healthy, creative, and active. Do what makes you happy. Break the monotony. I exercised, wrote essays, cleaned my room, practiced mindfulness meditation, took photos, and enrolled in different online courses. 

Overcoming my depressive episode doesn’t mean my depression is over. It will always be a battle. There will always be days when my negative thoughts seem to be winning, and during those situations, I always tell myself that I have a purpose as an OFW, which is to try my best to reach out to migrant workers in distress. I will try my best to educate, listen, and yakap my kababayans– Rappler.com

Marco-Miluel Lag-ey is a General Education Development teacher for Social Studies and Reasoning through Language Arts in Phuket, Thailand. He is a mental health advocate.