THE stigma associated with mental illness in the Philippines hinders the early intervention that is key to improving the lives of affected Filipino children, according to a developmental pediatrician of a recently launched child development center in Parañaque City.
Dr. Rochelle Pacifico, a developmental pediatrician, made the comments at the opening of the Progress Child Development and Therapy Center in Parañaque last week.
The center, which is operated by the Protacio Medical Services Group, brings together the disciplines of Psychiatry and the relatively new field of Developmental Pediatrics, to offer a comprehensive and multi-dimensional approach to addressing developmental disorders in children, the clinic explained in a press statement.
Mental illness, which ranked third in the most common disabilities in the country affecting one of five of the 100 million Filipinos, still lacks attention.
In the Philippines, Dr. Pacifico explained, proper mental health treatment is hindered by a huge wall of denial among family members of the mentally ill person, blocking the opportunities that could have maximized their potential and improved their state.
Because the various disorders are often linked with insanity, people with mental illnesses experience the stresses brought by the stigma, causing them or their families to deny its existence and avoid seeking proper help from, the doctor said.
Millions are mentally ill, yet there are only about 700 psychiatrists and about 1,000 psychiatric nurses in the country.
Latest available data from the Department of Health (DOH) showed that up to 17-20 percent of adults and up to 10-15 percent of children in the Philippines have mental illnesses.
A study by Bloomberg about the prevalence rate of metal illnesses in children from ages three to seven, with data from 1997-2008, showed a consistent increase from 12.84 percent to 17.1 percent.
The same study pointed out four factors that contribute to the increase including the increased cases of pre-term, and birth and genetic disorders; the low quality of prenatal diagnosis and new infant vaccines; high number of women who gave birth during their thirties and older; and lack of public awareness.
Yet these are not the only reasons, Dr. Pacifico said. She also debunked the old assumption,“you are what your genes are.”
“Gone are those days,” she said.
She explained that apart from one’s genes, “biological memories—their early experiences and exposures which start from conception—contribute to the development of the child.”
The effects of these does not end in childhood but last a lifetime, so expectant mothers are advised to avoid maternal stress.
Furthermore, in a study in 2012, neglect topped the chart of the factors directly contributing to the risk of long-term physical and mental health, Dr. Pacifico said.
This is because the period of plasticity, or the first three years of a child’s life, is very crucial in a child’s development. This is also the reason why intervention during this timeframe is highly encouraged, because one’s brain is most flexible during these years.
Still, it is not easy to achieve in the Philippines, where the acceptance of people with mental illness is very low due to lack of public awareness, lack of facilities, and shortage of human resources to deal with it.
Data showed there is an imbalance in mental health facilities favoring people who live in or near the National Capital Region (NCR).
Also, according to World Health Organization (WHO), there are only 3.47 human resources available for each 100,000 population in the country.
In an attempt to resolve these problems, an advocacy was launched in June headed by the Philippine Psychiatric Association (PPA).
It pushes for the approval of the Mental Health Law to protect the rights of the mentally ill and to expand opportunities for their improvement.
Improvement in the capacity of health workers pertaining to their knowledge, attitude, and practice is another goal of the advocacy.
However, at present, many facilities have unqualified health workers and do not provide holistic care to their patients, said Pearl Reyes, a child psychiatrist.
Another goal of the PPA-backed effort is the establishment of Philippine Mental Health Council that could provide unified responses to these problems.
The first attempt to pass a mental health law was in 1980. Its aims were included in the 2011-2012 mental health strategies of the DOH, but until now Philippines is one of the few countries without a formal Mental Health Law.