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Advocates urge House to pass mental health bill after Senate approves SB 1354

Mental healthcare advocates urged the House of Representatives to pass their own version of the Philippine Mental Health Law by May to put into law the bill approved by Senate on its third reading on Tuesday.

For Senate Bill No. 1354 or the Philippine Mental Health Law to be signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte, the House of Representatives must pass their own version of the law and come to an agreement with the Senate.

"Nananawagan naman po ako sa aking mga kasamang mambabatas sa House of Representatives na bilisan nila ang pagpasa ng Mental Health Act mula naman sa kanilang panig," Sen. Risa Hontiveros said in a briefing on Wednesday.

"Lalo na at ito naman — Mental Health Act of 2017 ay bahagi na ng priority legislative agenda ng executive at legislature. Muli, hindi ko kayang i-overemphasize ang urgency ng pagpasa," Hontiveros, principal author of the Philippine Mental Health Law, added.

SB 1354 seeks to create stronger mechanisms for the protection of individuals with mental health problems by creating a more robust mental health delivery system on a community level.

It seeks to integrate mental health services into the national universal health system to make psychiatric, psychosocial and neurologic services in all regional, provincial and tertiary hospitals accessible, affordable and equitable.



The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated an 18-percent increase in the number of people living with depression from 2005 to 2015 — roughly translating to an increase of 280 to 320 million people worldwide.

The figure for the Philippines is yet to be available, but a statistical report for HOPELINE, the national suicide prevention hotline, showed that the service received 3,479 calls throughout 2016.

Mental health problems not a "pang-mayaman" issue

Khryzza Pinzon of the Student Council Alliance of the Philippines argued that the passage of the mental health bill is beneficial to everyone regardless of age, gender, and socioeconomic status and is not merely limited to first-world countries.

"Ito po ay nangyayari at pwedeng mangyari sa kung sino man regardless of your age, regardless of your economic, social background, et cetera. It can happen to [anyone]," she said.

"We keep on forgetting [na] ang akala lang natin ang depression, ang mental health, schizophrenia, ito'y pang mayaman lang," Pinzon continued. "Kailan pa naging pang-mayaman ang issue ng mental health? It's an issue of everyone."

The mental health bill will also greatly benefit youths, who compose more than half the callers of the national suicide prevention hotline HELPLINE.

"It's very early, nasa early stage pa tayo, pero po ang ating mga kabataan ay dumadanas na ng ganito," Pinzon said.

Last November, the National Poison Management and Control Center (NPMCC) of the Philippine General Hospital presented before the Senate's youth committee its findings that 46 percent of the total suicide cases recorded since 2010 involve young people: 30 percent were young adults aged 20 to 35, while 16 percent were pre-teens and teens from the ages of 10 to 19.

Allowing the bill to pass into law might also help erase stigma and raise awareness in the Philippines regarding mental health issues and treatment.

"Sa lahat ng hindi makatarungang sinabihan ng sira ulo, lukaret, maluwag ang turnilyo, may sayad, baliw, abnormal, may topak, emo, praning, sinto-sinto at buwang, dahil sa maling pagunawa sa issue ng mental health, para sa inyo ang batas na 'to. No one should suffer alone silently in the dark,” Hontiveros remarked on Tuesday.

Jerika Ejercito, Be Healed Foundation director and ILAW ng Maynila program director, said the passage of the bill on its third reading is the most opportune time for this change in public perception of mental health issues.

"I truly believe that now is the time that Filipino people can move on from a simplistic view of mental health, to give way to a future that gives equal opportunities to those [who have been] marginalized for years," she said.

MH bill can help with War On Drugs

Like Health Secretary Paulyn Jean Rosell-Ubial, Ejercito believes the Mental Health Act can also help with the government's ongoing campaign against illegal drugs.

"We must shift our focus on what seems to be the problem, like drug addiction or physical abuse, because these are only manifestations of something deeper. Addiction, in itself, is a mental health problem," Ejercito explained.

"The drug epidemic could have been avoided if we had this already. It's high time that we push for this," she continued.

Hontiveros also lauded Ubial's repeated reminder that addiction is a form of
mental illness and often a comorbidity of an existing condition, adding that psychiatrists should be a part of the government's plan to address drug addiction.

"We should bring the voices of psychiatrists into the public conversation about drug addiction, kasama na po at lalo na ang addiction specialists," she said.

Progress for the Philippines

Miss International 2016 Kylie Verzosa, a vocal advocate of mental health awareness, hopes the passage of the bill could help remove the Philippines from the list of countries without a national mental health program.



"This bill brings our country one step closer to realizing a national mental health policy that will respond to Filipinos mental health needs and erase our record as one of the few countries left in Asia without a mental health commission," Verzosa said.

"I'm grateful that this bill will now allow mental health issues to be free from stigmatization and discrimination."

Verzosa also founded with her father Ari and her sister Chelsea Mental Health Matters, a support group that is currently working on logistics to provide better support for persons to share their concerns and experiences openly in an anonymous environment and seek advice from volunteer professionals.

The first version of the mental health bill was filed by the late Senator Orly Mercado in 1989.

The proposal was co-authored by Senators Vicente "Tito" Sotto III, Loren Legarda, Antonio Trillanes, Bam Aquino, Sonny Angara, and Joel Villanueva. — AT/BM, GMA News