Press Release
October 29, 2020

Hontiveros laments 'insignificant' budget for looming mental health pandemic

"Mental health issues cannot be solved in a single session or with a single pill. But the current budget for the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) stands at around P350 per Filipino in need, which isn't enough even for a week's worth of medication. Kung hindi sapat ang pondo para tugunan ang mental health needs, malulunod tayo sa isa pang pandemya."

This according to Senator Risa Hontiveros, author of the Mental Health (MH) Law, as she lamented the low allocation for MH programs in the 2021 National Budget after the Department of Health (DOH) reported that at least 3.6 million Filipinos suffer from MH disorders. Although the total budget for mental health had increased, she said, allocation for critical services under it had been significantly slashed by as much as half a billion pesos.

"I support the DOH in pursuit of a higher budget for mental health. Panahon ito ng stress, uncertainty, isolation at gutom. 3.6 million suffering is not only an underreported count, it's also increasing everyday. We need to prepare for, if not completely prevent, a mental health crisis. Wag natin tong gawin new normal," Hontiveros warned.

Hontiveros cited reports from the DOH and other agencies that the pandemic led to a 'shocking spike in suicides and domestic abuse that we are unable to cope with'. The NCMH crisis hotline also reported a 100% increase in calls, with almost 1000 calls every month on average since the onset of the lockdown in March. Experts had earlier warned of a mental health crisis in the midst of a worsening pandemic.

Despite the extreme demand, Hontiveros said NCMH, the country's biggest MH hospital, was refused P440 million, or 50% of what it had requested for their maintenance and operating expenses (MOOE). She elaborated that these cuts would mean that the out-of-pocket expenses of patients will increase and free services might get paralyzed.

"The MOOE is crucial in ensuring that services like teletherapy and the crisis hotlines are conducted under optimal working conditions. Mayroon lamang tayong isang psychiatrist kada 100,000 Pilipino. Kulang na kulang ito ngayong dumodoble ang demands for psych services. We should be studying how to expand these services, not cripple them," she said.

The allocation for mental-illness related medicine, Hontiveros said, was only given an "alarmingly low" P 84 million, or P 23 per Filipino in need, just 50% of what the DOH had originally requested. "MH medication is some of the most expensive maintenance drugs," the senator added. "Ang daming nawalan ng trabaho. At sa totoo lang, baka mas uunahin nilang tugunan ang kumakalam na sikmura ng pamilya kaysa pagkagastusan ang mga gamot. The consequences of not subsidizing these medicines and services can lead to even higher rates of suicide."

Hontiveros called on the DOH to fully implement all provisions of the MH Act after expressing alarm that only 45% of the 2019 budget for MH programs had been utilized. "Nakakapagtaka na wala pang kalahati ang nagagastos para sa mental health. I am all in for a higher health budget, pero kailangan nating bilisan ang pag-roll out ng pondo para sa mga serbisyo, so that we stand on strong footing as we brace for another pandemic," she said.

Hontiveros added that the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) should include packages for mental health immediately as mandated by the MH Law. "Mental illness is just as crucial as any other illness. With the high cost of therapy and medication, the government should shoulder these financial burdens to encourage people to seek help as well," she said.

"Kailangan nating ipakita sa mga tao na kahit may physical distancing, hindi sila nag-iisa. Dapat handa tayong saluhin sila sa matinding panahon na ito. We should put our money where our mouth is, and truly remain firm in our mandate to protect all aspects of the health of Filipinos," she concluded.

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