Make time for a mental health check

Aneth Ng-Lim

Posted at Oct 19 2020 09:10 AM

MANILA - Living behind closed doors, face masks and face shields can take a toll on anyone. And if there’s something we all realized these past eight months of community quarantine, it’s that no one is immune from COVID-19. Our wallets have taken a beating, our children’s education is at risk, we have to live with job insecurities, our physical health has to be closely watched, and then there’s our mental health.

Various groups have been reaching out to medical and health workers to offer counselling. It is also disheartening to see news headlines of students feeling disconnected and defeated from remote learning. Parents are struggling with becoming their children’s teachers, working from home, plus reduced income and making ends meet.

Social workers are sadly in the same boat. According to Childhope Philippines Executive Director Dr. Herbert Carpio: “Workers in the field of social development are very prone to stress and anxiety as they deal with the everyday challenges of pushing for a better world for vulnerable sectors that they serve. This became more pronounced during the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our staff, particularly those who give direct service to our beneficiaries, expressed burnout in the face of the children’s many concerns and their own fears and anxiety at work and in their personal lives.” 

For more than 3 decades, Childhope Philippines has been the champion of Manila’s street children, advocating for their rights and giving them and their families access to a better life through education, health and social services. When the government imposed the enhanced community quarantine back in March, Childhope had to shut down operations just as the rest of the country, but quickly reopened a week later to deliver food packs and other basic necessities to the street children and their families who were going hungry.

Earlier this month, Childhope hosted a 3-day webinar on mental health for its officers and staff and Dr. Carpio was the first to admit that it was time well-spent. Working in a pandemic situation, “our workers admitted that their stress is building up and already affecting their mental health.”

Dr. Carpio shares a story from one of their social workers. “She told us that she is stressed from the shift to online counselling from former face-to-face interactions. She fears that she is missing out on the importance of gestures or non-verbal cues that may tell a whole lot on the real situation of her clients. The fear also of not being equipped with the proper knowledge and techniques in using the new platform makes her feel inadequate to address the needs of her clients effectively.” 

He adds, “many of our staff also have personal problems that they have to deal with in their own families. These issues can also interfere with their performance at work.” 

Mental Health advocate Zena Bernardo was their resource speaker and she promoted an interactive discussion with the participants by discussing personal takeaways and inviting everyone to seek mentoring and guidance. Through the webinar, the staff were able to “unload” and look forward to the coming days with a lot less weight on their shoulders.

From the webinar, 3 urgent mental health issues were identified: (1) anxiety, (2) depression, and (3) burnout. 

“Anxiety is brought about by fears on job security and personal health concerns. Depression may follow, for example, if you have lost your job and you are unable to provide for your family's needs. Just like any other business, the NGO sector is not immune to the effects of the pandemic to the economy. Many had to downsize or stop operations entirely and this has a huge impact in the worker's psyche. The demands of work is steadily increasing, especially because the clients/beneficiaries also seek to have their emotional, physical and mental health issues addressed. The burden falls onto the worker's shoulders, and they can experience burn out if they are not able to cope up with the demands of work,” relates Dr. Carpio.

Street educator John Baybayan opens up: "I realized that I also have boundaries, and that I cannot help everyone or provide for all my clients' needs. Knowing this, I will be able to know when to ask for help from people who may have more knowledge and capabilities than me. In the end, this would be much better not just for my client, but also for me because I will have less stress and anxiety."

Co-teacher Francis Aquino adds that at this time, "I also have to be aware of the impact of my words or actions to my co-workers, as well as my clients. I can be the trigger that makes people around me feel anxious, depressed or angry so I need to be more careful in what I say and do."

Resource Mobilization and Communications manager Mylene Lagman agrees with Aquino’s insight. "As a parent, I now make sure that I ask permission from my teenage kids on things that will affect their lives. For example, posting pictures of them on social media. Certain actions we do as parents might also trigger negative reactions or behavior from our children.”

“This also applies to our work as NGO workers. It would be more beneficial if we work on the premise of mutual respect. For us, it does not mean that since we are working with children, we are automatically authorized to do what we think is best for them,” explains Lagman.

Apart from promoting mental health awareness and well-being, Childhope wanted the webinar to help its staff understand anxiety, stress, and depression, and better equip them in working with people undergoing stress, anxiety, and depression. 

They had 3 very useful takeaways that may apply to anyone, not just social workers. 

#1 Raising awareness is of prime importance - especially self-awareness. 

Recognize that you are having a problem. Set boundaries in what you can and cannot do. In realizing such, you become more in tune with yourself and lessen the stress you experience. It also helps to be aware of your actions towards peers and clients, since you can also be a source of stress to them.

#2 Establish a support group with your co-workers and friends.

The simple gesture of asking each other "kumusta ka? (how are you?)" can mean a lot because it sends a message that someone is available to talk to them if they need it. With social distancing, use social messaging apps in place of personal visits. Push a hello to at least 10 people a day – this will help them and also help you when they reply.

#3 Build a personal help network. 

Identify the network of resources around that could help you in dealing with your mental health issues. Labelling them right – they are not mental problems – will assist you in locating foundations, groups of professional practitioners, and even a helpline that you can get in touch with if you need help.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.