[Trigger Warning: This is a discussion about mental illness and suicide. The intent is to help and give out useful information. However, certain persons (depressed, mentally ill or traumatized) may be triggered by this topic. If you are such a person, read this with your carer or a trusted friend or loved one. Or if you are having an episode, better read this at a later time when you are better.]
Mental illness is one of the most complicated, scary, exhausting, painful — and even deadly challenges that a person, a couple, friends, and family can face. The endpoint of untreated mental illness, if the symptoms and episodes are severe enough — is death by suicide.
Unfortunately, Filipino society is filled with so much ignorance, bigotry, prejudice, stigma, shame, fear, superstition, misunderstanding, and downright arrogance when dealing with the topic of mental illness. This is what advocates like myself have to face.
Mental Health Month (October) has passed and, as usual, I’ve encountered so much stigma, prejudice, ignorance, bigotry, and superstition about mental illness. Unless we start fighting these with facts, correct information, kindness and understanding, we will never be able to reverse the trend of rising suicide rates in the Philippines and other countries.
It’s a disturbing trend. There are millions of Filipinos with depression and other mental illnesses. Many of them attempt suicide and tragically, a lot have died.
Worldwide, suicide is now an epidemic among young people — the third leading cause of death among the youth. In the Philippines, experts say suicide cases and mental illness among young people has been rising drastically.
If that doesn’t spur you parents into action, I don’t know what else will. Here’s a rundown of myths — or wrong ideas — about mental illness that I wish we could correct ASAP so we can begin to help those who need it most.
MYTH: Suicidal people are weak. That’s not true. People who struggle with mental illness and suicidal ideation are among the strongest on the planet. Why? They deal with stress, pain, exhaustion, panic, rage and other symptoms nearly every day. The fact that they manage to survive is a testament to their strength.
It is a torment for such people to struggle to look normal and live normally on a day-to-day basis. Those who think they are weak should try going through the same experience day-in and day-out and see if they can endure as much.
Unfortunately, some people finally reach the breaking point after years or even decades of experiencing symptoms. These people need help — medication, therapy, social support — so they can recover, reduce symptoms, and find the strength and hope to survive.
MYTH: It’s just stress. It’s never “just” stress. Stress kills. People who are suicidal are especially vulnerable to stress. Believe it or not, even animals die from stress. Even animals die by suicide when they experience too much stress. Research points to tarsiers, horses, dogs, bears and even dolphins as among those who have been observed to do this. There is something about stress that can erode, corrode, and weaken the natural survival instinct in humans and animals.
MYTH (but partially true): It’s all in just in your mind, so snap out of it. A person who has a mental illness can do that. In fact, he or she has been doing that every day — struggling to snap out of symptoms to be normal. A lot of times, they do that successfully. However, when symptoms and episodes become too severe, it can become impossible to “snap out” of suicidal thoughts, paranoid thoughts, and other mental pathologies.
Mental illness has a biological, neurological, organic component. You can think of it, by an imperfect analogy, as a broken computer. A computer can have a hardware problem, a software problem, or a combination of both. Depending on what kind or how severe such a problem is, a computer can work fine.
However, if the problem persists and the computer does not undergo proper repair or maintenance, the computer will eventually crash. Asking a person with a mental illness to “snap out of it” is like expecting your broken computer to fix itself without help.
This is one of the worst prejudices against people with mental illness: that they can and should use willpower and correct thinking to get well. It’s like expecting someone with diabetes or hypertension (or as Filipinos call it, “high-blood”) to get well by thinking, by controlling their illness with their thoughts.
We never tell a person with diabetes, “Use your thoughts to repair your pancreas, so that you can control your blood sugar level.” Or why don’t we tell them, “Use your thoughts to pump more insulin in your blood.”
We never tell a person with hypertension to “control your blood pressure with your thoughts, bring it back to normal.” We don’t because we know that the illness is beyond mental control.
It’s the same thing with mental illness. A person is mentally ill because some glitch in the brain (hardware) is affecting the software (thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and moods). Such a person needs medical treatment (hardware fix) as well as therapy and social support (software fix). Only then can their mental health be restored and they can “snap out” of symptoms better and more quickly.
MYTH: People with mental illness can no longer hold regular jobs. Wrong. That’s just like saying a person with heart disease or diabetes should longer be qualified to do regular work. The short version of the truth is: it depends on how severe the illness is.
A person who has depression as a mental illness is not depressed 100 percent of the time. Symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses are not active all the time. When symptoms are controlled by medication and other treatments (just like diabetes, hypertension, asthma, etc.), a person with mental illness can function normally just like anyone else.
So many persons with mental illness have thriving careers, are successful professionals, and some are even celebrities and billionaires.
MYTH (but partially true): Just pray and leave it to God. Research has found that prayer and faith towards a loving, protective God can improve mental health and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. That’s great. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
People who are severely mentally ill can go through psychotic episodes where they think God is talking to them. A friend of mine who went through a depression failed to get proper treatment — despite my urgings — and ended up delusional. He believed that God was sending him messages from heaven. He refused to sleep because he wanted to keep receiving those messages.
My friend said he’d rather consult pastors than doctors about what was happening to him. Then, after nights of being flooded with delusional, “heavenly” messages, he called up a pastor and asked, “Are these messages really from God or the Devil?” The pastor said, “They might be from the Devil.”
This made my friend worse. He became paranoid and refused to sleep because he was afraid that the Devil would possess him if he slept. After several weeks of not sleeping and continuing delusions, he started becoming violent and relatives had to admit him to a mental health facility for treatment.
So yes, religious faith can help ease some anxiety and depression. But it is not the whole answer.
Medical treatments, counseling and therapy, and social support — meaning, kindness, compassion, understanding, and the love of true friends and family (along with spiritual faith, if you are a believer) are still the combination that we need to stay mentally healthy.
If you are feeling in distress, depressed, or suicidal contact these hotline numbers:
(02) 804-HOPE (4673)
0917 558 HOPE (4673)
2919 (toll-free number for all GLOBE and TM subscribers)
The National Center of Mental Health Crisis Hotline:
0917 899 8727 (USAP) and 989 8727 (USAP)
Download the Suicide First Aid Kit for the Philippines here.
The author, Ramil Digal Gulle, is an award-winning writer and author of five books. He is a person with bipolar disorder and an advocate and lecturer on mental health topics, particularly on the lived experience of persons with mental illness.