It runs in the family. I wish we were talking about something manageable and familiar like hypertension or even cancer. But no. We’re talking about something as mysterious as it is menacing. I’m talking about something that can make you lose your head — figuratively and literally.
Oftentimes, the topic necessitates the beating around the bush, the circular explanations, the not referring to the illness directly by its name. Because there’s shame.
The culture permits it. The culture proliferates the ignorance. Captured in the terms baliw, may sayad, nawawala sa sarili and the other terms that may be equivalent to jokes referring to not getting your head straight.
You have the hysterical Sisa as the stereotype. The immortalized image of the baliw and the chaos that surrounds the character written by our very own national hero.
From the time Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere was written nothing much has really changed. The baliw remains as someone you don’t associate with and is only worthy of being the topic of casual chismisan.
Usually, the setting is in the Sunday morning family gathering. When the uncles and aunts are around the family table and exchanging updates on family matters. Then someone casually raises the topic, “O, bakit yung anak mo post nang post tungkol sa depression sa Facebook? May problema ba siya?” with a condescending tone.
May pinagdadaanan lang
Despite depression and mental health being talked about more recently, there are still those who suffer from mental illness and families who choose to remain mum about it. It may be for privacy or just because they’re not comfortable talking about it, but oftentimes, the template answer “may pinagdadaanan lang” is enough to end the discussion.
My mother, in her younger years, had severe bouts of depression. The numerous unsuccessful suicide attempts were more than enough as proof of her suffering. She was undiagnosed. Typical to her generation who has dismissed the illness as a personal problem that can be remedied by heart-to-heart talks over booze.
Having mental health problems is still blamed on the weakness of character brought about by not having the guts to tough it out against life’s reality. Like how Sisa broke down and lost her sanity together with her sons.
More than anything, the common understanding about depression still remains that it is a feeling and naturally, should be fleeting. It may be triggered by a tragic life event, but it too should pass with a little piece of advice and words of wisdom from the elders.
Seemingly commonsensical, but a truly fatal misconception.
Getting embroiled in the drama
Opening up the topic of depression and other mental health issues remain a challenge for those who suffer from them. There is the feeling that sharing about their experience is involving someone in their life’s drama.
There are some who are courageous enough to tell their story. But in a culture that still has to prove the credibility of their experience of mental illness, their stories are sanitized, reduced to measurable numbers, calibrated to be more scientific, to become something more palatable to the common folk’s tastes and level of understanding.
Hyperthyroidism may be linked to depression. The effects of hyperthyroidism prime the person to become more susceptible to mental illness.
My brother has hyperthyroidism and consequently, depression. Recently, he got into a vehicular accident. At least, that was his story. I learned that it was only his alibi for his failed suicide attempt.
“I blacked out maybe because of my hypertension”, he initially claimed.
I get him. It was easier for him to talk in the terms more familiar to me, even if it compromises the truth. When those who suffer from mental illness share their condition, at most, they attempt to make the subject seem light, because they don’t want to give the impression that they’re pulling anyone into their drama, which in its truest sense can be overwhelming.
The problem: We naturally run away from Sisa
Let’s recognize that the current discussion on mental health was triggered by famous personalities losing their lives due to their mental condition. And even these incidents were not reported properly.
When someone dies of cancer, people report that the person died of cancer and not of organ failure or any other possible manner of death. But when someone dies of depression, the word “suicide” easily hits the news headline.
We should say it as it is. That people die of depression. By not recognizing the cause, we run away from the problem.
For sure, Rizal has a compelling reason to include a character like Sisa in Noli Me Tangere. He carefully developed the character. Sisa appeared in several chapters of the book. Rizal portrayed her beautifully: pretty, charming, with deep beautiful eyes. She is a caring and doting mother and also highly sensitive, especially to how other people view her and her sons. Sisa takes care of her good reputation.
The irony is, how come in popular understanding, we see Sisa as the iconic baliw?
When everything went awry for Sisa, all of it happened at the backdrop of a seemingly nonchalant, yet judgmental society — relatable to most sufferers of depression and other mental illness. And like the other personalities in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, we just let Sisa wander around without help and we do not give a damn only until we learn about her death.
Maybe that is the message: We see the illness and not the person. And when we don’t understand both, we either stay away or define what we see in our own terms.
Sakit ng Mayaman
The discussion on depression and mental health should not just be limited to advocates. Various mental illnesses affect a lot of Filipinos regardless of age, level of education, or socioeconomic status. The illness is not just sakit ng mayaman. Sadly, there are only more people who suffer from it in silence.
The Department of Health reports that 3.3 million Filipinos suffer from depressive disorders while 3.1 million Filipinos suffer from anxiety disorders. These numbers are significant as these comprise about 3% of the entire Philippine population.
We already have the Mental Health Law and we should recognize that this is a big step in the right direction. But the full implementation of this law will take time and currently, help for those who suffer is still inaccessible.
The blanket statements on mental health issued by politicians about help being readily available and the ending of the stigma surrounding depression and other mental health illness still remain as mere statements.
Ending the culture of ignorance
The ending of stigma starts with the ending of ignorance. Baliw, may sayad, may sapak, wala sa sarili are not one and the same. Notice how the limitation of language reflects the limitation of our own thinking.
Sisa is not baliw. She is a victim, just like most of us, by a society that is not critical enough of its own ignorance.
I also used to think depression was just a lazy excuse for not conforming to society’s definition of productivity, until it happened to me.
The daily commute became a thousand times harder than it should. The long times in traffic made my head a battleground, while I contemplate different scenarios of how life could be so meaningless and how everything can be ended by simply surrendering. All of these in addition to the sleepless nights and always feeling tired.
It was only then that I tried to understand what I’m possibly going through. There were lots of self-doubt, until I sought medical help. It was only then that I understood that the illness is not the feeling, but only the cause of it.
The indication that we are moving forward in the cause of addressing mental health issues is when people who wish to talk about the illness can talk about it freely and those who wish to seek help can do so without shame.
Until any member of your family learns to ask the right questions and discuss depression and mental health without any hint of judgment, and until we learn not to dismiss any such discussion, by responding “may pinagdadaanan lang”, we will not be able to contribute to the ending of ignorance.
And until we learn that we’re not relating to a baliw, we won’t be ready to face the victim and talk about what needs to be talked about.