On mental health and well-being

San Beda University recently held the fourth Edgardo J. Angara Memorial Public Lecture on Public Policy as part of its Venerable Bede discussion series. Conducted online and livestreamed, the lecture’s theme was on nurturing holistic health and well-being at home and in the workplace—a very timely topic, in light of the disruptions caused by the ongoing humanitarian crisis.  

As I’ve written before, one of the major impacts of the pandemic is its toll on people’s mental health and well-being, especially on the youth. Data from the National Center for  Mental Health shows that the number of calls to its crisis hotline for the first quarter of 2021 almost doubled when compared to 2020—from 1,540 in January to March 2020, to around 3,819 calls in the same period for 2021. This trend held true throughout last year.  

One of the major points of the public lecture’s main speaker, Dr. Cornelio G. Banaag Jr., however, was that as early as 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) had already sounded off on the alarming global increase of mental health problems among young people, estimating that 10 to 20 percent of children and adolescents suffer from various forms of mental disorders.  

Dr. Banaag, who is Professor Emeritus from UP-PGH for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, explained that among the major causes of this mental health crisis was the proliferation of smartphones and the prevalence of social media. Young people had become so engaged with these technologies that they had actually stopped talking or communicating with each other.  

To demonstrate the point, Dr. Banaag shared a picture he took before the pandemic of a group of young people sitting together at a food court, but instead of engaging each other, they were engrossed in their cellphones. He then cited a 2015 school-based student health survey that showed that up to 17 percent of the 13- to 15-year-olds surveyed said they had attempted suicide at least once in their lives.  

These alarming data points were among the reasons we fervently pushed for the Mental Health Act (RA 11036), which was signed by President Duterte in 2017. While the law establishes a national mental health policy, significant resource, personnel, and service gaps persist. Dr. Banaag pointed out that only 7 percent of all public and private hospitals have a dedicated psychiatric ward or unit, and that there are only 2 mental health workers for every 100,000 Filipinos. In fact, one estimate pegs the number of psychiatrists nationwide at only around 500.  

But even if our health system was fully equipped to handle skyrocketing demand for mental health services, some of our people’s habits contribute to the problem. During the public lecture, Dr. Banaag and one of the discussants, Dr. Blesile Mantaring, Director of the Office of Students Affairs in UP-Manila, highlighted the importance of getting adequate sleep in maintaining one’s mental health and wellness.  

It appears, however, that Filipinos are generally sleep-deprived. In the 2016 AIA Healthy Living Index survey across 15 markets, the Philippines ranked ninthwith one of the highest sleep deprivation rates in Asia. Nearly half (46 percent) of Filipino respondents said that they do not get enough sleep, while nearly a third said they sleep for less than six hours. We scored higher in the 2018 iteration of the survey, but the sleep gap among adults—the difference between how much sleep they want and how much they actually get—remained the same, at 1.4 hours.  

To be clear, this is a problem not only in the Philippines, as various studies have found that people across the world are also sleep-deprived. Be that as it may, the pandemic seems to have only exacerbated the issue throughout the country.  

A February 2021 study conducted by a Grade 11 student, submitted to Victory Christian International School, and reported by major news outlets, found that a majority of Filipino teenagers 15 to 18 years old slept for only four to six hours a night during the pandemic. More than a third of those surveyed said that they slept at 3 a.m. or past since the pandemic started in March 2020.  

Furthermore, at least 8 out of 10 responded that their sleeping habits haven’t been healthy. When asked why this was so, four main reasons were cited—the massive change in daily routine (from physically going to school everyday to just staying at home); stress and anxiety (from academic pressure or fear over the future); lack of general exercise; and, sadness from not being able to see peers and relatives.  

All these have deep implications on the policies and programs that will need to be rolled out as we contemplate what a post-pandemic Philippines should look like.  

Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 years. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.

E-mail: [email protected]| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara

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