TURNING POINT: Communicating Hope


NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 25 Aug) – Has the incidence of suicide in this pandemic become so alarming such that the Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), the body organized to manage the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, was compelled to request church organizations’ assistance to help curb it?

Suicide is a major contributor to premature mortality worldwide and is among the leading causes of death in the Western Pacific Region. Approximately 32% of the world’s suicides occur in the region, and its annual incidence of 19.3 per 100,000 is 30% higher than the global average.

The Philippines is incidentally found in the region. Although the suicide rate in the country is, accordingly lower compared to other countries in the region, say, to China, Japan or Korea, a study showed that the suicide rate has steadily risen over a period of 20 years from 1992 to 2012 (in Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22/08/2020). Accordingly, in 2012 alone as many as seven Filipinos took their own lives in a day, that means one person committed suicide every three and a half hours.

Suicides are usually driven by depression, a mental and emotional storm generally considered a mental illness. But depression need not necessarily be an illness that grows and gets complicated over time. It may result from finding oneself in a terribly stressful situation where one feels nothing but misery and hopelessness and seeing no way out. The oppressive and overwhelming emotion gnaws at the core of one’s being. This can happen to anyone, even to a person of sound mind and body. This often is obtaining when one suddenly loses someone or something he loved and value so much in life – a person, relationship, job, health or freedom. The danger point comes when the feeling of loss becomes so painful and unbearable that may drive out all desires in life and for life itself.

The lockdown to avert the pandemic has caused a lot of losses to the individual and to the nation at large. It puts a heavy toll on one’s freedom to live and pursue a meaningful life. Millions have lost their job and income, hence the capacity to support and answer the basic needs of their family. Millions are confined like prisoners at home and in quarantine facilities in state of boredom, hopelessness and misery.

In short, the raging pandemic, unemployment, hunger, social isolation, reduced access to church services, the corruption that preyed on the health of the people and the overall national uncertainty and anxiety resulting from a wanting leadership make a perfect storm that lashes and makes a crack at the core being of the most vulnerable of the populace. Depression may find that crack and seep in.

Hence, even without hard data the IATF cannot be faulted for its alarm on suicide.

Preventing suicide thus is a serious, pressing concern. To adequately address the problem, it would have been insightful to know from what age group, gender and socio-economic status most suicides are obtaining, without which, we can only speculate.

Which group is really vulnerable to mental health problems and to suicidal behavior in this pandemic?

Heavily hit by the lockdown and all attendant measures to contain the pandemic are obviously the poor working class at the heap of the economic and social strata.

It’s doubtful, however, that they are susceptible to committing suicide despite the tragedy that struck them hard. The poor, no matter how badly battered, are not likely that easy to wither in this pandemic. They have developed resiliency from their exposure to muck, pathogens, frustrated wants and suffering; and have weathered them all. The poor will try everything, even violate boundaries, to survive. Their indomitable spirit enables them to course through this pandemic crisis. They are unlikely to commit suicide. But their dire situation should not be glossed over by authorities to avoid something graver than individual suicide to happen.

Apparently, the group to watch is that of the young professional working class who were already feeling fulfilled and happy in their job but suddenly found themselves in one quirk moment jobless and in quandary. Another, in the middle class, are the middle age work group who for the first time found themselves unemployed, too – suddenly cut off from their life support system without any warning and preparation. These are the people who, at the moment, don’t know how to feed their family because it has never been an issue ever since in life, probably a thought that had never crossed the mind. The stress is overwhelming.

What need to be done, aside from meeting their basic needs?

“Education and front-line services are things that we can be doing right now immediately. In the same way we educate people about wearing masks and social distancing, we should be educating people about depression,” said Dr. Jeffrey Geller, in behalf of the American Psychiatric Association, who testified before the US House of Representatives hearing on mental health in the pandemic in June this year.

It is imperative to think of a new frontline under the circumstance. Mental health professionals need to join hands with church workers, media and schools in educating the public about depression. Online services may be established to extend help to those navigating the crisis.

Not only professional but even laymen may help in extending a hand to those experiencing depression. We should be alert to the posts of friends or people we know on FB or in other social media platforms who might be giving signals regarding their need for help, like frequent talk of death or being tired of life and the like.

Friends are great of help to a depressed person. Just listening patiently to his woes and making him feel you are sincerely concerned may make a lot of difference.

Not pills but emphatic communication is critically needed by those who are experiencing depression in this pandemic. The aim is to help the depressed person navigate from negative to a positive way of looking at life; to assure him that his predicament will dissolve and disappear in a matter of time, and his loss is not the end of the world; that the sun always comes out and shines a day after a harrowing typhoon.

Our responsibility to our fellow journeymen in this pandemic is to communicate hope.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental, Philippines.)