By Brontë H. Lacsamana 

OVERWHELMED by daily learning modules requiring focus in a household of eight people, 16-year-old Shaia found herself struggling with mental health issues made worse by Metro Manila’s lockdowns. 

“Around April this year, I had a mental breakdown to the point where I asked myself, what are all my efforts for? I felt like the ‘bright’ future I had was getting dimmer and dimmer, and I also kept wondering why our situation [with the pandemic] was just getting worse,” shared Shaia, who gave only her first name, in the vernacular via messaging platform Discord. 

Sixteen months into the worldwide spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), people are feeling the effects of spending most of their time online, where a lack of boundaries can mean seeing a lot of friends’ social media posts hinting at stress, depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. Scrolling through these posts became part of Shaia’s routine, the main assurance that she was not alone and could rely on others as a support system. 

This feeling has become common not just among teens, but also people of various ages, according to Dr. Belle Erika R. Nubla-Gestuvo, head of outpatient services at The Medical City’s Department of Psychiatry, who spoke on the topic of teens’ mental health decline at a July webinar held by the Philippine Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (PSCAP). 

Citing a widely circulated New York Times article published in April, Dr. Nubla-Gestuvo said that “languishing” was the best term to describe that feeling: “It’s a state of not being depressed but also not thriving. It’s not that you’re sick and not that you’re having a disorder, but also not that you’re feeling well. It’s a feeling of stagnation and emptiness.” 

Despite not being a clinical illness, languishing for extended periods of time may put one at risk of developing mental and anxiety disorders later in life, Dr. Nubla-Gestuvo warned. 

In the Philippines, mental health problems have been reported in the workforce, from frontliners and business owners to pretty much everyone whose work involves greater levels of stress.  

Students’ mental health has been cited by pediatric experts as a compelling reason to gradually reopen in-person classes, starting with low-risk areas. 

However, the emergence of the Delta variant of COVID-19 has not only foiled any hope of such plans, but also disrupted natural cycles of mentally adapting or recovering, according to Dr. Cinderella Arellano-Sta. Cruz, program manager of the Clinical and Intervention Services Department at the Philippine Mental Health Association (PMHA), who spoke about students’ mental health on Radyo Veritas this July. 

Mas nakakataas sa anxiety ng isang tao ‘yung mga balita na ‘yan. Nasisira na naman momentum nila. Mafu-frustrate, maa-anxious, at made-depress na naman. Continuous cycle ‘yung nangyayari [Bad news can trigger a person’s anxiety. It can break their momentum, and they’ll feel frustrated, anxious, or depressed again. It becomes a continuous cycle],” she said. 

Missing out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences like prom and graduation also contributes to already-low morale. As an incoming Grade 10 student, Shaia lamented that it was “suffocating” having not much to do all year except stay inside and study, without any space to relax in a house of eight people, including her parents, aunt, uncle, cousin, and two siblings. 

Maria Mikaela “MM” P. Cabrera, an 18-year-old incoming college freshman, shared her similar struggles at the PSCAP webinar. Sharing an internet connection and space with several siblings can be hard yet manageable, but add on top that zero physical interaction with friends, disrupted sleeping patterns, and increased screentime and the situation takes a toll on you, she said. 

“Everyone is actually in one house or one home, but you don’t talk to each other because you’re all busy [with school or with work],” Dr. Arellano-Sta. Cruz of PMHA told Radyo Veritas, referring to how having a full household doesn’t equate to everyone talking. “You have to keep the communication lines open.” 

On equipping the youth with tools to take care of themselves, she added: “They have to be trained so that, while they’re at home, they have to do something to motivate themselves and plan their own schedules, with [parents and/or teachers’] guidance and support.” 

Teens have devised their own coping mechanisms over time: Shaia watches movies and TV shows during the weekends, and bikes around her barangay when allowed; Ms. Cabrera plays video games and schedules video calls with friends.  

A 2020 study by Shuquan Chen and George A. Bonanno on psychological adjustment during the global COVID-19 outbreak found that “the vast majority of individuals are resilient, and that outcomes depend on a combination of resilience factors including exposure severity, individual differences, family context, and community characteristics.” 

In the Philippines there are hotlines and organizations that address the issue of mental health, including: 

  • Youth for Mental Health Coalition, a youth-led non-profit organization that campaigned for Republic Act No. 11036, or Philippine Mental Health Act, which passed in 2018. Their projects include information-sharing on social media, donation drives and fundraisers, procurement and delivery of medications, referrals for psychiatric consultation, online support groups, and podcasts on mental health.
  • The hotline HOPELINE, created by Globe and the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation in 2012 to reach out to people in need of immediate crisis intervention. The hotline is 2919 (free for Globe and TM subscribers), 804-HOPE (4673), or 0917-558HOPE (4673). This July, they partnered with telehealth service integrator HealthNow, making the service available on the HealthNow app.
  • The National Center for Mental Health, the country’s designated PhilHealth-accredited mental health institution, has a 24/7 crisis hotline reachable at 1553 (the free Luzon-wide landline), 0917-8998727, 0966-3514518, or (0908)-639-2672.

Webinars on mental health such as PSCAP’s are held almost every week as well, filling a demand for health services and information. Dr. Nubla-Gestuvo noted that it was important to maintain all these avenues of dialogue with the youth and with students, pandemic or no pandemic, to assist them in building their resilience. 

On helping teens like her cope, Shaia said that just having people to talk to already helps and that more concern should be directed toward the state of the Philippines: “Siguro ako kaya ko pang ma-manage. Ang kinakatakutan ko lang talaga ay baka dumating sa punto na abutin pa tayo ng ilang taon bago umayos ‘yung sitwasyon. [I guess I can still manage. What I’m really scared of is what if we reach the point where it will take years before this situation improves.]” 

Meanwhile, Ms. Cabrera and her friends have somewhat adjusted to remote learning organizing video-call study groups and trying time management methods like the Pomodoro technique to stay focused. She was recently accepted at her university of choice and is looking forward to being a college student, despite the fact that she will still be learning remotely.  

Again, citing Chen and Bonanno’s 2020 study on psychological adjustment, Dr. Nubla-Gestuvo put faith in teens’ resilience, guided by support systems: “People can bounce back. Human beings are not passive victims of change, but active stewards of our own well-being.”