Goodbye, Captain

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014


ASK someone to name a favorite Robin Williams character and you’re likely to get different responses, from the wide-eyed alien in “Mork and Mindy” to the inspiring professor in “Dead Poets’ Society.”

The zaniest faces sometimes conceal the saddest souls. The beloved actor’s death yesterday, in an apparent suicide, has again brought that truth home. But part of the tragedy is that it has to take the death of a celebrity to bring the problems of depression and substance abuse to the fore.

The National Center for Mental Health reports that 2.06 percent of all patients in Philippine mental health facilities from 2009 to 2012 suffered from “severe depressive episodes with psychotic symptoms.” If there is local data to be had, it remains rarely discussed, but the rising number of suicides reported to the police suggests the problem may be rising, if not already widespread.

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Drug abuse, a form of mental illness, has sunk its claws into adults who otherwise would be in the most productive years of their lives.

The Dangerous Drugs Board reports that at least 20 percent of drug abusers who sought treatment in 2012 were 30 to 34 years old. Shabu remained the most common drug of choice, abused by 79 percent of patients who sought rehab; long-term use is known to cause heart disease, renal damage and psychosis, which manifests itself in violent and destructive behavior.

But the problem is that drug abuse and mental illness remain highly stigmatized conditions, so that few of those afflicted seek help. The World Health Organization (WHO), reporting in 2007 on mental health in this country, said there remained a need to educate the public to accept that "mental disorders are just like any other illnesses,” for which people should be encouraged to get treated.

It will not be easy, considering the uneven access to mental health facilities. Most of these facilities are in Metro Manila. Health workers trained to address mental health conditions are also in short supply; the same WHO report said there were three health care workers (not all of them psychiatrists) for every 100,000 persons.

Millions who found joy in a Robin Williams performance probably cannot reconcile how someone so generous with his gift of making people laugh, could have done so while battling his own demons for so long. One hopes his death will help others find the courage to ask for help, and to find it, along with a measure of peace.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 13, 2014.

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