OPINION: After Joey De Leon’s apology, it’s time to have an honest conversation about mental health

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While Filipinos were understandably outraged over Eat Bulaga host Joey De Leon’s insensitive comments last week belittling depression and mental health, the truth is they are very much a reflection of attitudes with deep, strong roots in our society.

And while the public has no reason not to forgive de Leon – who has already offered a heartfelt apology and acknowledged his error — there are lessons to be learned from what happened.

For those who haven’t been following the case, here’s what De Leon said that had the word “depression” trending on Twitter for nearly 24 hours:

“Yung depression, gawa-gawa lang ng mga tao iyan. Gawa nila sa sarili nila.” (About depression, that’s just made by people. They make themselves [depressed].)

Make no mistake about it, Joey De Leon is far from the only Filipino who believes this. In fact, the idea that depression is only in the mind — an easy excuse for sad rich people — is common in the Philippines.

And if the 100,000 reactions to the comments were indicative of anything, it is that more Filipinos are affected by depression and mental illness than would like to admit.

I can recall countless times when depression was being discussed with other well-meaning Filipinos who would tell me that depression is more of a Western problem.

“You see Filipinos with almost nothing, yet they still smile and laugh,” they usually say, dismissing the possibility that people who smile and laugh could possibly be “depressed.”

This is one of several dangerous misconceptions about mental health prevalent in the Philippines. Given what a complex issue this is, let’s limit ourselves to three common ones.

  • Being depressed and sad is not the same thing. This is one factor that causes confusion about depression among many Filipinos. Guy Winch, a US-based psychologist explained the differences in an article for Psychology Today. He said the main difference is that sadness is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences. While depression is an “emotional state, a mental illness that affects our thinking, emotions, perceptions, and behaviors in pervasive and chronic ways. When we’re depressed, anything can trigger sadness and not necessarily a difficult event or situation.” (Read more in Psychology Today)
  • Depression does not mean weakness. This is one stigma that prevents many men — in a society that puts a premium on traditional ideas of masculinity — from seeking help for depression or other mental illness. It’s a stigma that needs to be put to rest. According to Beyond Blue, an Australian mental health organization, one in eight men experience depression at some point in their lives.Tim Cantopher, psychiatrist and author of The Curse of the Strong says that depression is actually an indication of strength: “What happens if you put a whole lot of stresses on to someone who is weak, cynical or lazy? The answer is that they will immediately give up, so they will never get stressed enough to become ill.”
  • Mental illness is treatable and manageable. But if you suspect you may be suffering from depression or mental illness, diagnosis and treatment options can only be done by a professional. However, finding affordable treatment for mental illness can be difficult in a country where healthcare is not accessible to everyone.Still, there is reason to be hopeful.Last May, the Senate approved the Mental Health Act of 2017, which seeks to improve access to mental healthcare and make it more affordable. If this is an issue you believe in, make sure to tell your local representatives to support this bill when it goes to a vote in the House of Representatives later this year.There are also non-profit organizations out there to assist you in finding the help you need, regardless of economic status. The Natasha Golbourn foundation with the Department of Health (DOH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) has a suicide prevention hotline operating 24 hours a day (804-4637; 0917-5584673; and 2919 for Globe and TM subscribers).

But before we can really begin to make sure everyone struggling with depression gets the help they need, we need to start by changing the way we talk about mental health.

“Depression is not a laughing matter. It’s not a joke. Because many people go through it, especially today’s youth. It’s important to gives those going through it support,” actress and Eat Bulaga co-host Maine Mendoza immediately told De Leon on camera, a bold move that understandably gained her praise for speaking out.

This World Mental Health Awareness Day, in a nation filled with Joey De Leons, let us find the courage to be a Mendoza. If the people around you – older, younger, family or friend – are perpetuating incorrect and harmful stereotypes about mental illness, say something.

Because, as we witnessed, all it took was one young voice — and a little encouragement from those close to him — for a major TV star to start changing his understanding of mental health. There’s a lesson in that, and for our own sake, it’s one we need to heed.

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