By Corina Oliquin

MANILA — In a statement sent to reporters on August 21 Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases member and Justice Sec. Menardo Guevarra  appealed to churches and religious leaders  to “save (followers) from self-destruction” in the pandemic.

Guevarra’s plea came after he received a call from National Task Force against COVID-19 chief implementer Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr. “regarding the alarming increase in the number of suicides during these pandemic times.”

“He is seeking the help of our churches and spiritual leaders in providing guidance to their followers who are undergoing depression due to loss of employment or livelihood, anxiety of being afflicted with or dying from the dreaded disease, loneliness arising from isolation and lack of hope for a return to their normal lives,” Guevarra said.

“I share Sec. Galvez’s concern and respectfully request our spiritual leaders to bring this much needed message of hope to our suffering countrymen in order to stave off more incidents of self-destruction,” he added.

In a report by Rappler, the government limited church and worship services in Metro Manila to just 10 people even during the easing of restrictions to general community quarantine (GCQ), which Guevarra said previously was upon the request of mayors.

Since the enforcement of quarantine measures last March, masses and worship services have been livestreamed to curb the spread of COVID-19 to abide by physical distancing protocols.

Mental health groups slam the call

In another report by Rappler, mental health groups including MentalHealthPH, Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan (SPARK), and University of the Philippines Manila (UPM) Peer Empowering Peers Society have criticized Justice Guevarra’s appeal to churches and religious leaders to help amid the spike in suicide cases during the pandemic.

The groups insisted that it should be “mental health professionals rather than religious leaders who should be at the helm of addressing the psychological toll of COVID-19.”

“The calling for religious leaders to mainly address this issue is downright insulting to mental health professionals in the country, especially when these very religious institutions have created a long-held malicious narrative about mental health,” SPARK said, noting religious institutions “have contributed to the stigma against mental illness as many followers believe that those who commit suicide are sent to hell.“

“In order for the deaths to stop, we do not need religion, we need action. We need free mass testing, social programs, unemployment insurance, increased subsidies for the poor; we need accessible programs to help those with mental illness. We need hope,” SPARK added, insisting “suicide is not spiritual failure but a result of the failure of the state to give their people hope.”

UPM Peer Empowering Peers Society, on the other hand, highlighted the role of professional mental health services in lowering the number of suicide cases in the country.

“Proper referral to mental health professionals is of utmost importance because they have been trained and licensed to appropriately diagnose and treat mental health problems,” UP Peer Empowering Peers Society said.

Moreover, MentalHealthPH asserts the need to make suicide prevention a national imperative and that it is “high time for government agencies, non-governmental organizations and private sectors to work together in addressing the mental health needs of Filipinos” as there are only 600 psychiatrists in the country for a population of over 100 million according to psychiatrist and Philippine Psychiatric Association director Dr. Angelo Jesus Arias.

It is okay to not be okay

In another report by The Manila Bulletin, Department of Health Undersec. Maria Rosario Vergeire at a palace briefing on August 24, said the public should know that it is “totally fine” if they are not feeling mentally well during the pandemic.

“Ito pong ating mga kababayan na nakakaranas ng fears, anxieties, depression, feeling of hopelessness, and helplessness, maaari po kayong tumawag dito sa mga hotlines natin,” she said, noting the DoH has partnered with institutions like the Philippine Mental Health Association, University of the Philippines Diliman Psychosocial Services, and also Ateneo Bulatao Psychosocial Services.

“Ang gusto ko lang po iparating sa ating mga kababayan, it’s okay not to be okay. Lahat po tayo nakakaranas ng ganyang pakiramdam ngayon dahil sa sitwasyon na ito,” she said.

Last June, the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) recorded a spike in the number of Filipinos accessing their crisis hotline following the imposition of the Enhanced Community Quarantine in Metro Manila and nearby provinces in March to May 2020.

NCMH psychiatrist Bernard Argamosa, during a press briefing on June 08, said the number of daily calls increased with an average of 30 to 35 calls recorded daily from March to May 2020 compared to just 13 to 15 calls from May 2019 to February 2020.

Meanwhile, the NCMH crisis hotline offers a 24-hour service to people who are depressed or at risk of suicide through 0917 899 8727 (USAP) or (02) 8989-8727 (USAP).