℞ for Depression

Every Sunday, The Philippine Star publishes an article written by a reader on their chosen book. Last December, I read It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a novel which made me rethink depression, and jumped at the chance to submit my article and share my insights on the topic. A week later, when I found out that my article hadn’t gone to print, I decided to send a message to the novel’s author, Ned Vizzini, instead, just to tell him about how much his book had inspired me. I wasn’t expecting a reply as I figured someone like him must get thousands of messages everyday. But on January 1st, he messaged me back. Boy, was I starstruck! After poring over what I should say in response, I was finally able to get back to him two days later. Fast-forward to May 1st—surprise!—The Philippine Star published my article, and just in time for Labor Day (a way of telling the unemployed to hang in there, perhaps?). Then, on May 7th, Ms. Frances Lim from the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation sent me a message after reading my article. She told me that what I had written about was “relevant and important,” and she invited me to the launch of the Be Happy! Movement on May 18, 2011.

Depression, like most mental health issues, is often ignored by Philippine society and may even be taboo for some. I was impressed and struck by the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation’s efforts to connect with people on such a personal level, and I feel that the foundation will definitely go on to help a lot of people, Filipinos, more specifically. I decided to attend the event because I was interested in how the foundation addresses depression within the context of Philippine culture and society. I wanted to be there as a representative of the football community as well because I believe that participating in sports can help prevent depression.

Psychiatrist Dr. Lou Querubin began by giving an introduction to depression, something I apparently needed. Filipinos are said to be “tolerant” of it and that sumpong (being moody) and tampo (being cold) can sometimes be depression in disguise. I might have gotten an A in Psychology 101, but it took that introduction to remind me that depression causes structural changes in the brain (an atrophy of the hippocampus). There are also emotional (e.g., sadness, lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, suicidal thoughts), physical (e.g., lack of energy, inability to concentrate, changes in appetite, changes in sleep patterns, psychomotor changes), and associated (e.g., brooding, obsessive ruminations, irritability, excessive worry over physical health, pain, tearfulness, anxiety) symptoms that most may not be aware of. The difference between mild depression and clinical depression is how long it lasts and its effects on day to day functioning. The psychiatrist clarified that if you experience a prolonged period of sadness, but can still function, chances are you’re still OK and are coping. Part of recognizing depression in a mental health sense is knowing your emotions well. She covered much of the science behind depression as well, but it was this line that was most noteworthy: “The currency of the human being is relational and depression makes you dysfunctional in the very thing that makes you human . . .” In other words, depression hits you at the very core of your being—your will to live—and it turns you into a different person.

Filipinos tend to be unwilling to discuss depression nor are they well informed about what it truly means. Depression and other mental health matters are no laughing matter, and the fact is that this is a cross-cultural illness; the Philippines is no exception. In 2004, there were 4,570,810 reported cases of depression in the Philippines, a country that regards itself as one of the happiest in the world. The foundation’s main advocacy is depression awareness and suicide prevention. They usually have forums, lectures, and seminars that are open to the public. They also work with other organizations, but my personal favorite is their partnership with Globe, in which they dedicated hotlines to help the low-spirited among us. Isn’t that amazing? We actually have 24/7, toll-free, confidential counseling services, just like the suicide prevention hotline that was central in the novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story. (Anyone can reach them at 0917-558-HOPE, 0917-572-HOPE, 0917-842-HOPE, or 0917-852-HOPE.)

The Be Happy! Movement has a different take on depression awareness. In the interest of reaching the masses, the complexities of depression have been noticeably dropped. Instead, the movement focuses on finding happiness again so that it becomes a potent force in your life. People are encouraged to start off by doing small acts of kindness for co-workers, friends, or family. The important thing is taking that first step. This brings me to a key aspect of the movement, the Give Yourself a Happy Hour, which involves taking a break from your daily activities and doing something that makes you happy. This is greatly reinforced by the foundation’s online campaign that lets you share your Happy Hour insights on Facebook. There is also a Twitter page filled with motivational tweets and a YouTube page with inspirational videos. Involvement in social media is simply one of the foundation’s ways to reach as many as they can.

I know that most companies, as part of their dedication to corporate social responsibility, prefer to help organizations that produce more tangible results. Who wouldn’t want to see homes being built, orphans getting adopted, or trees being planted? I think these organizations are wonderful, but I think it would also be great to see a company reach out to an organization like the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation. Belittled by too many for far too long, something has to change for people to realize that depression is an illness. For some, it can be a matter of life and death, as when depression becomes so severe it drives a person to consider suicide. It wraps around a person’s overall well-being, and isn’t just something one can snap out of. Involvement with groups that promote mental health awareness may not produce results as tangible as other organizations, but just the same, lives can be saved. I may not understand everything there is to know about depression, but philanthropy can be a process. You may not be depressed, but wouldn’t it be great if you could help someone be healthy and happy again? They say that happiness is a noble ambition. Let’s help each other reach it.