Protect mental health amid government lockdown, doctor urges

Psychiatrist Reggie Pamugas gives a mental health orientation to members of alternative media. (Bulatlat file photo)

“We should have physical distancing, but let us not forget that we should have social connectiveness, because we need to connect with others in order to sustain our sanity especially at this time when we are experiencing the insensitivity of the government in terms of the needs of the people.”


MANILA — When President Rodrigo Duterte announced on March 12 that a community quarantine would be imposed in the entire National Capital Region at 12 midnight of March 15, Sunday, there was already a trace of tension among the residents of Metro Manila, uncertain of how this community quarantine would go about.

The next day after the announcement, people started flocking to grocery stores stacking on items that they deem necessary should they be forced to stay home for the duration of the quarantine, which was set to end on April 14. The quarantine was supposed to limit the movement of people in and out of Metro Manila hoping that such limitation would help prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). On March 16, Duterte placed the entire Luzon under an enhanced community quarantine, further limiting the movement of people with the prohibition of all forms of public transport and mass gatherings including religious gatherings.

For ordinary people, the enhanced community quarantine is not just about containing the virus, it is also about their family going hungry and this is causing so much strain and distress.

Padyaks (bicycle taxi) were no longer allowed to roam the streets. At first they could go around in certain areas, but eventually they were completely forbidden to operate,” related Helen Beronio who works at a school canteen in Quezon City.

“We were no longer allowed to work and the barangay was constantly yelling at people in loudspeakers, berating them, telling them to stop roaming around the streets and to just stay home,” Beronio, also a church volunteer, said. “But they were simply trying to make a living so that they could feed their family for that day.”

Helen was distressed, not just because she won’t be receiving any pay since she would not be able to work, but more because she expects that many of her neighbors, who have no other means of livelihood, would really go hungry with this quarantine being enforced.

“It was fine when we did not receive the promised assistance from the government on the first two days, but when the Enhanced Community Quarantine was implemented and people were no longer allowed to travel, completely, it was another story,” said Myrna Sawit, a housewife and church volunteer.

“Then two weeks, and still nothing. People were getting hungry and they were turning to the church for help, but we could only do enough,” she added.

San Isidro Labrador Parish in Bagong Silangan, was first to respond to the needs of the residents of Bagong Silangan, having anticipated that the ECQ would be causing mass hysteria with the lack of proper support from the government especially on the provision of food and other basic needs.

“People were panicking, people were begging for food,” related Sawit

“Our neighbors would go to my house asking if the parish would be giving more assistance the next day. Even those who are not Catholics were coming to our house,” she said, adding that this calamity has driven the poor to such a desperate state, pushing them to give up whatever little dignity they have left.

Mental health in extra-ordinary times

With the worsening cases of COVID-19 and with the government’s lack of direction, psychiatrist Dr. Reginaldo Pamugas of Health Action for Human Rights said it is timely to look into mental health.

“We need to protect our mental health,” Pamugas said in online forum hosted by the Congress of Teachers and Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (CONTEND), March 27.

He pointed out significant events during the lockdown, which could further cause frustration among the populace: the sudden stoppage of mass transport; the irresponsible action of a Senator who, despite his knowledge of being a Person Under Investigation (PUI) and eventually having tested positive of the virus, went to a hospital exposing a significant number of health workers and patients; and the lack of action from local governments and national government agencies in contrast to the few who are actually making a positive impact in their communities.

He said that as much as we may have set some mechanisms to cope with daily stressors, a crisis of this magnitude could overwhelm our usual coping mechanisms.

“Even those with religious affiliations, they would say that there is some greater being that would take care of us, but with a crisis of this magnitude, they would really be affected but then the question is, is it the crisis that we encounter that’s affecting our mental health or is it our reaction to the crisis,” he pointed out.

Pamugas said that stress is normal, especially in an uncertain situation when we do not know what would happen or which we could not control.

“When go to a grocery store and you are very calm when you enter, but when everyone in the store is panic buying, it can be contagious,” he said.

He added that each individual has different levels of coping and that is why it is important that we should not judge those who may be having a hard time to cope.

ABC of mental health

In order to protect one’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, the enhanced community quarantine, and the recently approved emergency powers of the President, Pamugas suggests the ABC of Mental Health.

First is awareness. “You should know yourself so that you would know how to cope with the situation,” he said. He added that one must make time to do some self reflection, that is to think of one’s past experiences and learn how they were able to manage similar situations.

Situational awareness is also important. “You should know what is happening otherwise you will become anxious, you will have fear, frustrations, uncertainty, the more that you would panic,” he said.

Next, Dr. Pamugas shared that a balanced life is very important, this means a balance in one’s lifestyle, family, and work. He pointed out that one’s routines during normal times should not be disturbed even at this time.

“If you go to work at 8 a.m., then now that you are working at home, make it a point that you also prepare for work early and then start working at 8 a.m.,” he said. “It is very important that normalcy is maintained so that your thoughts would not focus much on the trauma caused by the situation.”

“It is not that you would escape from the situation, rather what you are trying to do is to lessen the trauma that is caused by the situation,” he added.

Lastly, he said that connectivity is very important in this time of crisis.

“We should have physical distancing, but let us not forget that we should have social connectiveness, because we need to connect with others in order to sustain our sanity especially at this time when we are experiencing the insensitivity of the government in terms of the needs of the people,” the doctor-activist said.

For this, the spirit of altruism is very important because the feeling of having helped someone creates a good emotion. Together with this is the collective effort of helping others in need.

“We should focus our attention on how we could help others or how people could help each other because if they see that they are able to help others, especially those who really need help, then they would feel good,” he said, adding that this would help them cope with the stress caused by the lockdown.

“We should create communication channels with our peers, with our colleagues, our communities, especially with those in need. You should act together because if you see that there are many of you who are doing something, then the more that you would be encouraged to do something” Pamugas said.

“A support system is very important,” he said.

For Beronio and Sawit, their involvement with the parish relief operations have allowed them to cope with an abnormal situation that is causing so much stress and distress in their community in Bagong Silangan. The knowledge that they are able to help others and the support system that they have established among themselves allowed them to be more level-headed during this crisis, giving them an even bigger opportunity to help their respective communities where they also act as local leaders. (

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