As the Philippines enters its seventh month under community quarantine, the effects and burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt in the economy, as well as the mental health of individuals, caregivers, families, and healthcare practitioners. 

In line with World Mental Health Day this October, Johnson & Johnson, in collaboration with the Philippine Psychiatric Association hosted the fourth annual Southeast Asia Mental Health Forum, with the theme of ‘Building Capacity for Mental Health in the New Normal.’ The event was attended by over 500 participants from across the Southeast Asian region, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore.

Dr. Alessandra Baldini, SEA Director of Medical Affairs of Johnson & Johnson, shared that the urgency to address mental health stems from existing mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, depression, and neurodegeneration disorders, being further exacerbated by the current pandemic situation. 

From March to August this year, the National Center for Mental Health hotline saw a spike of calls on the crisis hotline with an average of 876 monthly calls, 53 of which were related to suicide. In comparison to the months prior to lockdown where the center received only an average of 400 monthly calls from May 2019 to February 2020.

Medical Specialist III of the National Center for Mental Health Dr. Rodney Boncajes shared that the challenges brought about by the pandemic revolved around limited access to mental health services given physical distancing protocols and scarce resources. 

Likewise, Philippine Psychiatric Association President Dr. Amadeo Alinea emphasized how all of these challenges are felt across the nation, even more so in the rural areas where access to mental health services are more limited. 

Some of the programs that have been mobilized to address these gaps so far include the Medicine Access Program, which focuses on the provision of uninterrupted medication while under community quarantine, and the implementation of local mental health programs in provincial and regional hospitals to lessen the need to seek treatment outside of their areas

Dr. Alinea said, “Although the COVID-19 pandemic has tested us, it has also given us an opportunity to kickstart conversations about mental health to the public, as well as the chance to educate and learn from one another on how we can build future strategies for mental healthcare.”

In coming up with solutions to these challenges, three key themes emerged in the Forum, particularly in areas of Innovation, Access, and Partnerships. These include the utilization of digital technology for telehealth and telepsychiatry services, psychotropic formulations with longer half-life, introduction of community-based mental health at the primary care level, and emphasis on mental health education. 

In line with the goals of the Mental Health Law (Republic Act 11036), the Philippine Council for Mental Health (PCMH) aims to make mental healthcare accessible to more Filipinos by 2023. Objectives they’ve set include focusing on Prevention & Promotion, Information & Research, Governance, and Services. 

Over the years, J&J Philippines has played a key role in institutionalizing mental health across the country. Together with their partners in the local health sector, they’ve piloted projects that affirmed their commitment to advancing mental health, including the film Anino ng Kahapon, a project aimed to decrease the stigma of schizophrenia, the Into the Light program, which paved way for the creation of the Philippine Health Information System in Mental Health (PHIS-MH), and the Patient’s Equity to Support “Out-of-Pocket Expense”(PESO) Value project, which explored the implementation of a health financing scheme for mental health services in the country.

“It is important to understand that building capacities for mental health does not fall on just one sector’s responsibility. It is a collective responsibility that everyone must take on,” said Raghu Krishnan, President and Managing Director of J&J Philippines. 

He added, “Beyond COVID-19, we at Johnson & Johnson will continue to support our partners in the local mental healthcare sectors. As leaders and innovators, we will continue to find ways to further advance the advocacy and bring every mind back to mental health and well-being.”

J&J, NCMH, and PPA advocate for access to mental health services during COVID-19
Spokepersons: Dr Alessandra Baldini, Medical Affairs Director Southeast Asia J&J (Top Left); Dr. Amadeo Alinea Jr., M.D., FPPA, President Philippine Psychiatric Association (Top Right); Dr. Rodney Boncajes, M.D., DSBPP, Medical Specialist II, Department of Health – National Center of Mental Health (Bottom Left); Raghu Krishnan, President and Managing Director Johnson & Johnson Philippines (Bottom Right)

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