Filipino culture holds a heavy stigmatization towards mental health — it is either ignored entirely, or minimized and mocked.
“Why, are you mentally ill?” My mom asked, the sarcasm dripping and oozing from her voice. I’d just handed her an article called “Cats Are the Unsung Heroes of Mental Health” to support why I wanted – no, needed to adopt a kitten into our household.
“Yes, mom, I am mentally ill,” I bit back, looking her dead straight in the eyes. She knew that I was on medication for my sexual violence-related PTSD and that I’d been seeing a counsellor for over year to treat it. In the version of Filipino culture that my parents raised me on, we dealt with our suffering with laughter and resilience. Naturally, my mom’s ignorance was unsurprising.
Filipino culture holds a heavy stigmatization towards mental health — it is either ignored entirely, or minimized and mocked. Anxiety? It’s all in your head. You’re making excuses. Depression? Sleep it off. You’ll get over it. While mental illness in the Philippines is legally protected against discrimination under the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons, the law itself further perpetuates the stigma, using “insanity” as a blanket term to encompass all disorders.
In 2015, the Philippine Psychiatric Association successfully advocated and lobbied the government to finally legislate proper mental health care. The Philippine Mental Health Act was passed in May 2017, calling for the government to integrate mental health services into the public healthcare system. Up until then, the Philippines was one of the only countries that didn’t have a national mental health policy.
Under his old-fashioned, patriarchal upbringing, my dad was supposed to be the man of the house who provided everything for his perfect nuclear family. When he was forced to close his business in 2006 — effectively killing his greatest passion and his means to live up to the arbitrary expectations society imposed on him — he was devastated. This changed the dynamic of our household entirely — my mom had no choice but to become the main breadwinner on her part-time hourly wage at a physically and emotionally laborious job. My dad was too stubborn to settle for just any job, and stuck with precarious self-employment despite the heavy financial burden on my mom.
We never talked about the psychological wreck left in the wake of my dad’s business closing — he was depressed and bottled up his emotions, and my mom would say the exactly right thing to hurt him to relieve her own stress and frustration. When he would inevitably explode, they would have a screaming match and divide the house between them for days while I was stuck in the middle. I hated being home and would find any excuse I could that would keep me out of the house until my bedtime.
My aversion to being home would continue for years. Don’t get me wrong, I love my parents and have had positive relationships with them my whole life, but the emotionally hostile environment at home wasn’t conducive to being able to cope with the regular stress of my own life. After being raped in 2015, I became even more protective over my psychological health, but eventually, I realized that in my parents’ old age, I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. This year, I figured adopting a kitten would be a good excuse to keep me at home, and something to focus on other than my parents.
My mom was vehemently opposed to pets growing up — she had always been particular about the cleanliness of our home, and to her, pets were smelly mess machines. When I was trying to convince to let me adopt a kitten, even when I told her that it would be good for coping with my trauma, her argument was that she would end up doing all the work. I resolved to prove her wrong and made one of the best decisions of my life — by the time I handed her that article, I’d already made arrangements to adopt my first kitten, Daisy, that same night.
Of course, my mom was mad. “Why did you do that?!” she hissed when I came to the doorway of her room, my tiny little half-Bengal angel in my hands. The next day, I came home from work and found Daisy curled up in my mom’s lap, a warm, content smile across my mom’s face. Four months later, the same thing happened when I adopted a feline companion for Daisy. “I told you, just one cat!” she yelled in exasperation, but hours later, I found Mango curled up on my mom’s shoulder, the same smile on her face.
Last year, my mom found out that her polycythemia vera had progressed into myelofibrosis, a form of blood cancer that can develop into leukaemia. As I write this, my mom is days away from being admitted into a hospital to receive a bone marrow transplant. Depression is one of the most common and worst symptoms of myelofibrosis, yet amazingly, it hasn’t manifested in her.
Instead of the sound of my parents’ yelling and cussing about money, our house is filled with their hysteric laughter as Daisy and Mango wrestle each other across the living room. When my mom and I talk, it’s not about how she wants to walk away from her marriage, it’s about how weird Daisy is for sliding individual pieces of kibble out of her bowl to eat on the floor. No longer do I resent being at home — in fact, I get overly anxious to be with my family. I thank the goddesses every day that I made the call to bring two mischievous feline angels into our home that would later save our lives.