mental health

[OPINION] Why the PH needs more psychological first aiders

John Sitchon
[OPINION] Why the PH needs more psychological first aiders
The basis of psychological first aid is to care about persons in distress and show empathy towards them and their situation

While managing a mental health initiative with fellow youth advocates in Cebu, I stumbled upon a lot of interest in and mixed reactions towards what’s called “psychological first aid.” I would often receive messages from friends asking about how it works and whether youth leaders were actually capable of giving out this kind of aid.

My response? Yes, we definitely are capable. In fact, we need more psychological first aiders now more than ever!

As COVID cases increase, a large chunk of the population is affected not just physically and economically, but also psychosocially. Losing contact with people and being unable to interact has a very harmful impact on our mental well-being. There has to be a cushion to save us from this crash. (READ: [OPINION] The mental health ticking time bomb)

According to medical doctors Julia Hillesheim and Bárbara Okabaiasse Luizeti of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), “The [coronavirus] pandemic triggers fear – the fear of being infected, of infecting a family member at risk, of an economic collapse.”

The two doctors added that if this fear is left unaddressed, it would eventually lead to an increase in levels of anxiety and stress in healthy individuals and intensifies the symptoms of those with pre-existing psychiatric disorders. (READ: Can PH cope? Mental illness cases tipped to surge during pandemic)

In my discussion with my colleagues, I would often hear someone say that “a mental health crisis is just waiting behind the curtain of a natural calamity,” and I find it to be quite true and substantiated.

You see, in 2013, 800,000 people from Leyte suffered from medium to severe mental health conditions, as recorded by the World Health Organization (WHO) primarily after Typhoon Yolanda. 

But that was a “one-time calamity.” Surely it would be different when people are safe in their homes, right?

Not necessarily. Again, mental health-related illnesses are still created from long periods of social isolation and a lack of human contact.

Our status quo doesn’t help either, because in the Philippines, despite the presence of the Mental Health Act, there’s still a chronic lack of mental health workers. (READ: Can PH cope? Mental illness cases tipped to surge during pandemic)

Dr Angelo Jesus Arias, a psychiatrist based in Dumaguete City and director of the Philippine Psychiatric Association, said that there are only 600 psychiatrists for a population of over 100 million. 

“Staggering numbers that have highly volatile effects” is what I’d often tell my colleagues, but that doesn’t cover the rest of the problem. 

There’s still this massive stigma against taking psychological therapy and accepting locally-provided mental health services in the Philippines, most especially in highly-conservative households. 

For us average people, social interactions are of vital importance. It is necessary to support affected individuals in finding ways to keep in touch with others, especially when in isolation. Hence, we have to provide psychological first aid. 

The basis of psychological first aid is to care about persons in distress and show empathy towards them and their situation. It involves paying attention to their reactions, active listening, and, if needed, practical assistance, which most of the time involves connecting them with locally-provided mental health services.

Besides offering to pay for someone’s therapy, psychological first aid is always an accessible option for individuals who wish to help, or even for individuals to finally get that push to go and get therapy themselves.

These days, PFA courses are being provided by mental health groups such as MentalHealthPH and Wellbeing Cluster PH. Most of the training is provided online through video conference platforms with modules designed to help train even young adults to become PFAs. 

Peer-support groups are made with PFAs taking the lead, eventually helping provide for participants in need of the care and relief to combat anxiety and isolation stress. These groups are mostly joined by young adults who want to seek refuge and advice for their situations.

The issue now is how we can connect to those without internet access. Truthfully, we can’t do this alone in the mental health community. This issue could be solved if our national government extends its reach in many different ways, like providing marginalized families with their own devices, for example. 

This has to be a collaborative effort if we want everyone to receive psychological first aid!

In a nutshell, when you have something as accessible as this for individuals who don’t have the means to access conventional psychological therapy or even purchase medication, it is a no-brainer to fund these movements to help ease and address the mental health issues in the country. 

We are facing a barrage of problems in this global pandemic. Governments must do away with traditional beliefs that prevent mental health care from reaching its people and finally address the issue head-on. We need more psychological first aiders now, because mental health problems do not wait. –

John Sitchon is the publicity head of Project CoVAid, which is a mental health initiative in Central Visayas. He is also director for operations at Visayan Youth Matters-Central Visayas.

If you are ever in need of mental health and psychosocial support in the Philippines, check out this master list from Silakbo PH.