Seek Help: Sharing an article from the Manila Bulletin

We would like to share this article that came out in the Manila Bulletin yesterday. This article discusses the recent suicide of model, Helena Belmonte, and the stigma still attached to mental illness here in the Philippines.

This is an important article to read and to share, so please feel free to link this on your walls or accounts! The more people know about this, the better!

This article was written by Rowena Bautista-Alcaraz & Jacky Lynne A. Oiga.

The complete article can be viewed at the Manila Bulletin’s official site here:


Crazy/ beautiful

Today, world bipolar day, let’s ask the question: why is it such a shame to seek professional help for mental or emotional disorders in the philippines?

The tangibility of a physical illness, whether it’s a frozen shoulder, bad teeth, or even cancer, makes it easier to accept than mental disorders like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, and schizophrenia. When it’s physical, there’s proof that something’s wrong. The underlying pathology of mental disorders, however, is something that cannot be diagnosed though blood tests or an MRI. So for disturbed people, who can’t see what is causing their mental and emotional problems, think that there is something wrong with them as a person, that it’s their fault.

This is probably one of the reasons why on March 20, after a dinner with her friends and her boyfriend, Helena Belmonte, the daughter of Lorraine Belmonte, One Mega Group Inc. founding creative director, allegedly jumped to her death from her building in Ortigas. She was 28.

Helena had bipolar disorder, but she didn’t accept it. She refused to be monitored professionally, afraid to be labelled as weird or crazy or sick in the head. And can you blame her?

why not seek help?

People who don’t understand mental disorders associate psychotics with hopelessness, desolation, filth, turmoil, and wretchedness. They associate depressed pains with weakness. They label bipolars as scary, violent, and agitated people. Now if you find yourself struggling with these illnesses—scared, demented, and alone—what will you do?

“Mental illness is still pervasively problematic in our society despite us doing swimmingly in a world with advanced technology and a huge expanse of personal freedom and acceptance,” says Dr. Danice Justine L. Lañas, a clinical fellow from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore. “So, normally, mentally disturbed individuals just keep quiet. So society won’t judge or shun them.”

Two years ago Jerika Ejercito was diagnosed with depression. At the height of her ordeal, she launched the I AM the Issue Foundation to provide help for the depressed and has since felt like talking to a brick wall. Now eight months pregnant with her first child Isaiah, she appeals to those afflicted with the disorder: ‘Don’t be scared. If you need someone to talk to, you can come to us. If you need help, ask us.’

Dr. Lañas believes, though, that the biggest factor contributing to the scarce awareness of mental health in the Philippines is misguided stigma. “Stigma means a lot of things,” he explains. “It can be shame, disgrace, or dishonor. To put it in a bigger perspective, the patient’s shame will encompass the patient’s family. It is disgraceful to the family to be known to have a mental illness because it is in their blood and therefore part of who they are as well.”

Stigma and negative publicity were the reasons why I AM the Issue (a foundation that raises awareness on mental health and fosters a society that supports those living with mental disorders) founder Jerika Ejercito, 29, first-born and only daughter of Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and Laarni Enriquez, quietly suffered clinical depression—free falling, losing grip, stuck in a vicious cycle of parties, drinking, going out until, finally, she decided she wanted to get better.

“In London, I could have easily seen a shrink. Here in Manila, I couldn’t just do that. My dad was running for Mayor at that time, if I saw a shrink, people might say that ‘Yung anak ni Erap may sira sa ulo. Baka sira din ang ulo ni Erap.’ That’s what I was afraid of. But then eventually, I thought, ‘If I don’t seek help, baka saan na ako pulutin.’ So I turned myself in and found a doctor.”

Jerika moved to London when she was 17, at the height of her father’s impeachment trial. She lived there for nine years until her parents called her back, in time for Estrada’s mayoral campaign. That’s when she started feeling depressed.

“When I left, my idea of the Philippines was 2005, when everyone crucified my family. So when I came home two years ago, I hated it. I didn’t want to come home. I was forced to come home. I was very resentful. Those three thoughts gnawed inside my head when I was depressed. I was dependent on prescription meds, I couldn’t imagine living without them. Then I got pregnant, so I had to stop. It’s my eighth month now, I’m about to pop, and I’m okay,” Jerika beams.

Pregnancy gave Jerika’s life a new purpose—something depressed people often lack. “After feeling so lost for so long, I now feel I have something to look forward to. That I’m here for a reason, I just badly needed help,” Jerika adds. “That’s why I started I AM the Issue, to provide help for the depressed. If you need someone to talk to, you can come to us. If you want to know what’s going on with your disorder, you can ask us. And most important, if you need help, ask us. Don’t be scared. Don’t let other’s opinion cloud your judgment. Do it for yourself.”

Dr. Lañas explains that different people react to mental health diagnosis differently. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard an angry patient say, ‘Doc, hindi ako baliw!’ and walks away in a huff. Patients often get depressed because they think it’s their fault they are abnormal or their condition is hopeless. Some are just too sick to understand anything. But the goal of therapy, of seeking help is to improve their insight— knowledge of their illness, compliance with treatment, perception of severity of their condition, etc.— so they can accept their condition and learn to help themselves,” Lañas says.

kindred spirits

“Like its twin Phoenix after its death, the Firebird rises again from its own ashes, a lot stronger and wiser.  Much like after being depressed, after the darkness, after the temporary death of our souls, we rise again, and we fly high again. And life is beautiful again.” That’s the story behind the name of bipolar organization Mood Warriors and Firebirds, Bipolar Advocacy Philippines on Facebook, says founder May Juliet Dizon, 46, fondly called Teacher May by her students and friends. Coincidentally, the said Facebook page will be linked to Mood Thrives Society of the Philippines page today, March 30, in celebration of World Bipolar Day.

In May 2011, Teacher May turned to social media to look for others like her for self preservation, for acceptance. Needless to say, she was nearly at the height of her depression and hopelessness. That in many areas of her life there were struggles. She was diagnosed with Bipolar II. “I could have died from depression that year, but since I knew I had a huge responsibility to our members and supporters, I needed to stay alive,” she recalls.

Fellow mood warrior Sheena Kristine Cases, 26, signed up for the advocacy after finding it hard to manage her mood disorder. A few years back, Sheena sought professional help despite initial fear of being labeled. Thankfully, with increased knowledge and understanding, that fear grew less and less. “Society was harsh for me most especially when I was still not able to prove I can manage my disorder,” recounts Sheena. “It was very hard for me to cope. Some people insist that I’m not really bipolar, I just make too many excuses.” But Sheena is better now. She’s doing her Master’s Thesis at the University of the Philippines and is active in her church.

Anne (not her real name), on the other hand, is still mustering the courage to come out as a bipolar. She has always been irritated, hallucinating, and depressed for reasons she can’t understand. Her parents brushed off her being aloof, irritated, and shy as harmless quirks. When acceptance came, it was her grandmother who embraced her condition with open arms. “Bipolars have a tendency to withdraw from society,” says Anne. “And although being bipolar is not curable, it is treatable. One has to be compliant of the medications to rewire his or her brain. It is not wrong to seek professional help because it allows you to know yourself better.  After all, everyone’s ‘crazy’ in his or her own way.”

a mother’s grief

Fashion designer Jeannie Goulbourn somewhat suspected her daughter Natasha Goulbourn was bulimic after she insisted on losing more weight. After all, fashion media would always stress that models look thin, sexy, and desirable, which is not far from every young girl’s dream body image. That was a year before she lost her to over-medication in Hong Kong after a bout of depression. Natasha, 28, passed away in 2002.

“I was totally clueless about depression. In retrospect, with the knowledge I have now… sleepless nights, eating after midnight snacks full of sugar, mood swings, happy, angry, sad, no appetite for food she loved. They were all symptoms of depression,” says Jeannie.

Natasha, however, knew something was not right. “She said so herself. She went to a naturopath doctor and ate only organic veggies and fish. She also had the roots of her hair tested in England to check if she had any mineral deficiencies. Her problem was not being able to sleep and that is a pattern of most people in depression,” Jeannie recounts.

Natasha then sought the help of a psychiatrist recommended by her friends. Jeannie and her husband met the doctor to give him the historical background. “The Australian psychiatrist was too Western.  He said I could pay the bills but doesn’t give me a right to know what was happening to my daughter as she was an adult. I complained and asked if he could perhaps review the antidepressants as she was seeing spirits and hearing voices. She was also asking us questions that did not make sense. She wrote an email saying she couldn’t step on the brakes on time and might have to stop driving. ‘I feel weird with medications I am taking,’ she wrote.”

And then she was gone.

“Any mother with a child who took her own life feels the same emotions—shock, disbelief, numbness. It is surreal. You feel like you’re living a nightmare and at the same time looking in from the outside. Then you feel anger… sometimes bitter anger and when you cool down all the questions overwhelm your brain. ‘Why? What did I not do? What did I miss out on?’ Then guilt,” Jeannie laments.

Today, Jeannie serves the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation (NGF), a group that promotes awareness on depression and how one can prevent, recognize, or treat the mental illness.

“In NGF, I discovered the most beautiful people. Responders who are dedicated, doctors who serve us without any exchange, nuns, priests, volunteers with a big hearts, and friends and family who see the need and give generously. We have a long way to go but what a privilege that I am directed by the Lord and Natasha to continue to serve,” says Jeannie.

aren’t we all crazy?

Mental illness is a product of many things. Dr. Lañas says that it is indeed hereditary. But environmental factors such as one’s upbringing, past experiences since childhood, trauma, and coping mechanisms learned also cause neurons to subtly change.

Medically speaking, there are no perfectly sane people, only normal people. One important definition of “normal” for psychiatrists like Dr. Lañas is being able to bounce back when faced with life stresses. It’s not as easy for many of those with mental disorders “Being in a state where your inner world is aligned with your outside world, no matter what happens, you know things happen for a reason, sometimes beyond your control, and you’re okay with that,” he says. “You are able to focus on things that you can control and fix. You’re imperturbable. You’re resilient.”

There lies the irony. As Teacher May puts it, sometimes you’d think that the normal people should know better, should try harder to be more compassionate and understanding to those with special needs. “Sometimes I think many Filipinos have self-esteem issues that they are not aware of. I have a mental illness, but sometimes even I have better judgment than others. So I wonder, who is really sick?”

Beauty And Brains

Aristotle says there’s no “great genius without a mixture of madness.” Taking it literally, some of the most beautiful, most eminent, most celebrated personalities in the world of television, literature, science, health, music, society, and cinema, wrestled against mental disorders—and iconic they became.

• English poet Virginia Woolf suffered from four major breakdowns before drowning herself at the age of 59. She had manic-depressive illness.

• Diana, The Princess of Wales, long struggled with bulimia and depression before her tragic death in a car crash.

• Many speculated that Marilyn Monroe had either bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder (BPD), which ran in her family.

• Wordsmiths Robert Frost, Hans Christian Anderson, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and T.S. Eliot all wrestled against bipolar disorder.

• Harry Potter author JK Rowling spent nine months under cognitive behavioral therapy when she had suicidal tendencies and depression as a single mother in her 20s.

• Disney teen pop star Demi Lovato struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and bipolar disorder.

• Former Nickelodeon actress Amanda Bynes was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

• Before their tragic death, Cory Monteith, Heath Ledger, and Philip Seymour Hoffman suffered from mental illness.

• Singers and musicians like Britney Spears, Dona Summer, Pete Wentz, Billy Joel, and Frank Sinatra all admitted their fight against bipolar disorder.

• Celebrated men like Winston Churchill, Vincent Van Gogh, and Mel Gibson all suffered from bipolar disorder.

• Many believed that American poet Emily Dickinson’s often dark and gloomy poetry suggested her bipolar disorder.

•Historical geniuses like Abraham Lincoln, Buzz Aldrin, Leo Tolstoy, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Edgar Allan Poe, and Isaac Newton had possible symptoms of mental illnesses.

• Beyonce Knowles’ younger sister, Solange, has always been a ball of energy, but the real culprit is her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

• British screenwriter and Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson has occasional mild depression.

• Vivien Leigh, who rose to fame after her portrayal as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, had symptoms of bipolar disorder before her miscarriage in 1940.

• Hollywood A-listers like Cameron Diaz, Angelina Jolie, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Kristen Dunst admitted to have suffered mental disorders at one point or the other in their lives