It’s not a law yet, but we can do something about it now.
On May 2, 2017, celebrations were in order as 19 senators unanimously approved the Philippine Mental Health Act during it third and final reading. It was a major victory that had been a long time coming, but it’s only the first big step in what will hopefully be a serious and impassioned nationwide effort to give mentally ill Filipinos the help they need, indiscriminately and adequately. Just a little over a year later, it’s finally been passed and made a reality — a move that, if done right, equates to a win for everyone. So how did we get here?
In 2015, the Philippine Psychiatric Association launched a movement calling for concrete government action that would address and find solutions for mental health issues. Through MHActNow.org, they sought to create awareness on the realities of mental illness and underscored the importance of people using their voice via a petition that garnered over 10,000 signatures. As part of their campaign, they released a series of commercials, working with prominent names who have opened up and been vocal about their own struggles with mental illness, including Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Ian Veneracion, Agot Isidro, Rico Blanco, Lauren Young, and Angel Aquino.
That same year, Senate Bill No. 2910, or the Mental Health Act of 2015, was filed. It involved a mental health policy that would lead to enhanced integrated mental health services, the protection of citizens making use of these services, and the allotment of sufficient funds. However, following its first reading and referral to committees handling health and finance, it was stalled, and nothing appeared to have come of it.
Two years later, a group of senators drafted and filed Senate Bill No. 1354, or the Mental Health Act of 2017, which was championed in particular by Sen. Risa Hontiveros. Following its initial approval by the senate, it was then approved on November 14 by the House of Representative on its third and final reading, and passed unanimously with 223 affirmative votes.
According to the Senate website, as of May 17, 2018, the Mental Health Bill had been signed by the Speaker and the Secretary General of the House of Representatives, and as of May 21, copies of the Bill were sent to the Office of the President of the Philippines for signing and approval.
On June 21, the Mental Health Bill was signed by the president, effectively and officially making it Republic Act No. 11036, or the Philippine Mental Health Law. Of the historic development, Sen. Hontiveros has said, “No longer shall Filipinos suffer silently in the dark. The people’s mental health issues will now cease to be seen as an invisible sickness spoken only in whispers.”
“Finally,” she added, “help is here.”
The passing of the law sees the reconstitution of the Philippine Council for Mental Health, which they hope to make stronger and better equipped. There is also, as mentioned above, the enhancement and promotion of integrated mental health services, based on international human rights standards — particularly providing citizens with better access to these services and programs in the public health system, including basic services at the community level and psychiatric, psychosocial, and neurological services in regional, provincial, and tertiary hospitals.
Mental health professionals will receive improved training, and the government will collaborate with academic institutions, psychiatric associations, and non-government organizations to conduct research and development projects. The policy also establishes and protects the rights of people with mental illness, such as freedom from discrimination and stigma, through an ongoing awareness campaign and mental health programs in schools and other organizations.
If we truly want a mental health policy that caters to everyone and holds no prejudice, however, we have to make sure that treatment is equally accessible across economic backgrounds. More importantly, it must be made clear that substance use disorders, such as drug use and drug addiction, are recognized by the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as mental illnesses, and should be seen by the country as such — meaning that those who suffer from them must not be demonized, and they can still benefit from treatment and rehabilitation.
While it’s amazing news that the Mental Health Law now exists, it’s also important to acknowledge that addressing mental illness begins with the ones closest to you, and we can do something about it in small but concrete steps. Whether you yourself are suffering or you know someone who is, so many lives can be saved by reaching out and having a conversation — it’s easier said than done, but more often than not, being honest and open can lead to awareness and understanding, which in turn can lead to concrete help and care.
The bottomline is, none of us deserve to go through this alone, and we can do so much for each other when we’re kind to ourselves and one another — when we’re working together and letting each other in.
This article was updated on June 25, 2018.