A young man with a smiling disposition goes into his room one day and hangs himself from the rafters. His parents and friends are shocked beyond belief. “He was always so quiet and nice,” they say. “We didn’t know.”
Or as happens too often in America, a seemingly innocuous teenager walks into a classroom with a gun and blows half his classmates away.
The common denominator: mental health. More specifically, the lack thereof.
Public health officials worldwide are reporting dramatic increases in the number of people—especially young ones—experiencing emotional disorders ranging from simple depression to far more serious afflictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States recently conducted a survey querying the country’s teenagers on their mental state. The staggering results: 40% reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless” while 20% said they had contemplated suicide.
Even the Philippines, where current statistics are hard to come by, is showing alarming long-term trends. A 2020 report by the Philippine World Health Organization estimated that 3.6 million Filipinos suffer from mental, neurological, or substance abuse disorders, one of the highest rates in the Western Pacific. And a 2015 survey by the UN Development Program Philippines suggested an astounding 17% of Filipinos aged 13-15 had attempted suicide.
All indications are that COVID-19 has made everything worse. “These data are a cry for help,” CDC deputy director Debra Houry told the Washington Post.
Closer to home, concerned pundits and politicians are calling for greater assistance. “Good public mental health requires a heavy investment in community-based care,” columnist Anna Cristina Tuazon declared recently in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. While public interest in mental health has mushroomed, she said, government spending has remained abysmally low, comprising just .3% of the Department of Public Health’s budget. To solve that problem, Tuazon concluded, health officials should “strongly consider prioritizing public mental health…”
Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go has echoed that demand. “We have to ensure,” he said in a statement reported by the Manila Times, “that no Filipino is left behind in our journey towards full post-pandemic…recovery.”
For me, mental health concerns have long been personal. Back in 2006, my oldest son—then 18—began showing signs of grave schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. For more than a decade, his mother and I fought tenaciously with the mental health establishment to get him into treatment, despite a shortage of beds and facilities. We finally succeeded only after he made several suicide attempts, suffered more than a year of homelessness, got addicted to drugs, and attacked a housekeeper, putting her in the hospital.
Today he lives in a locked San Diego County mental health facility where we visit him whenever we can.
My youngest son, now 11, struggles—as do his classmates—with anxiety in the wake of recent school shootings in Texas and elsewhere. Two weeks ago, he tells me, his class practiced a drill in which three assigned students closed all the windows while their teacher locked and propped a chair up against the door. The rest of the students, meanwhile, cowered in a corner, waiting for the “danger” to pass.
So far, thankfully, it has.
David Haldane’s award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists,” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is a journalist, author and radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.