Last March 16, the nation was rocked by the tragic death of University of the Philippines-Manila student Kristel Tejada who decided to end her life.
The 16-year-old Behavioral Science freshman’s dreams of becoming a doctor were crushed when she was forced to file a leave of absence from UP Manila for not being able to pay her tuition balance. She drank silver jewelry cleaner.
Her death sparked outrage and calls from the UP community, youth sector and even from lawmakers for a change in the payment system of the state university. Subsequently, the UP Manila administration has decided to lift their “no late payment” policy.
But while Kristel’s death paved the way for the review of alleged restrictive and repressive policies and reforms in the public educational system, it also became a precursor of a series of suicides by students who were also
encountering problems with their studies.
One was 14-year old Lee Young Gunay who shot a bullet through his head in his parents’ room in Batangas City. He was reportedly bullied by his classmates in Saint Bridget College where he was a high school sophomore. Lee was also said to have been suffering from depression after failing his Math class.
Two weeks after, two more students from Batangas City committed suicide. Like Lee, Don Benedict Pamintuan and Daveson Beron also used a gun to end their misery. College freshman Don shot himself for failing four of his subjects in De La Salle University-Dasmarinas. He was set to transfer to Batangas State University (BSU) the next school year. Daveson, on the other hand, found out that he was not included in the list of graduates at the BSU where he was a Mechanical Engineering student and so he shot himself in the head in his own room.
These string of suicides have alarmed various sectors, especially psychologists who believe that the lack of awareness on depression and suicide and its preventive measures hampered the help that they could have gotten.
Dr. Eleanor Ronquillo, one of the resource persons for psychiatry of the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation (NGF), says that depression is “highly curable” and that suicide is “highly preventable.”
The Natasha Goulbourn Foundation was founded by fashion designer Jean Goulbourn in memory of her daughter Natasha who suffered from depression and died in 2002. Since its inception in 2007, NGF has been working to spread awareness about depression in the Philippines to prevent a similar tragedy from
DEPRESSION AND SUICIDE
One could be in a crowded room full of depressed people but would never notice it.
“They may just be like you and me,” Dr. Ronquillo describes people who are suffering from the mental illness. “They may be well-dressed, walking well,” and when they start to speak with her, ultimately they would know that “something is wrong.” The WHO, she says, considers suicide as a major public health problem. “One person dies every 16 seconds so that translates into an estimated one million people dying from suicide every year.”
The first step towards treating depression is awareness, according to NGF.
“Depression does not depend on the weight of someone’s problems, or on the failure of weakness of a person. But rather, it is disorder,” points out Dr. Ronquillo who has counseled various people aged 10 to 82.
According to her, when the triggering factor comes, the chemicals in the brain which influence emotions change and result in an imbalance.
“A suicide does not happen immediately just because of one incident. There are many factors which lead up to that decision. It may just be that Kristel’s failure to pay her tuition is the triggering factor for her demise,” she says. Other factors may include lack of social and family support, a person’s personality.
Depression, she adds, can also be hereditary.
For a suicide to happen, depression should be present in that person. However, there are exceptions when people commit suicide due to psychosis or when they are under the influence of drugs.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Depression is sometimes mistaken as an act of attention-seeking. But Ronquillo says these people really need the attention and all the help they can get.
People should be on the lookout for persons who verbalize their intentions of dying, those who have sudden withdrawal syndromes and abrupt mood changes, and those who engage in risky activities as they may be suffering from depression and may lead toward suicide.
“They would say ‘Pray for me.’ Or ‘I’m going away.’ Some even lock themselves in their rooms, not wanting to talk to anybody. Sometimes they would ask where to buy guns or they would collect pills or get drunk and drive very fast at night,” she says.
This was evident with Kristel and Don Benedict, who left suicide notes for their families.
Dr. Ronquillo also enumerates three factors for a suicide to be possible. First, the person must experience a “deep, aching, psychological pain.” Second is that there should be a doable method of suicide present, and lastly, the person must have guts.
“That is why some result to drinking (alcohol) because it gives them the guts.”
The copycat syndrome was speculated by Dr. Ronquillo as maybe the reason why there were more suicide cases after Kristel.
“They imitate what they see. Like with Kristel, they see that and they identify with her so they copy what she did. It’s like idolizing one person. This is dangerous because teenagers have that kind of vulnerability and
impulsiveness. It’s because in our brain, we have the thinking part and the emotional part. The adolescents have a developed emotional part but not yet the thinking part,” she explains.
Dr. Ronquillo says that these copycats could have thought that Kristel was lucky because her problems were over.
A FAMILY PROBLEM
Like all aspects, treatment should start with the family who should also consider one of its member’s problem as their own concern.
“A family member should say ‘we.’ ‘Let us go and see how we can get help.’ It should be ‘we’ instead of just the person with the problem. When one has suicidal tendencies, we recommend hospitalization to protect the person from himself,” she says.
The family should also constantly reassure the person that they love and accept him as depressed people often feel unloved and rejected. A suicidal person should always have someone with him 24 hours a day, she advises.
Once the family’s care for the person is assured, that’s when the foundation comes in.
“The foundation conducts advocacies and seminars to raise awareness among people. They maintain a hotline which should be called by people when there is a crisis, to prevent suicide from happening. The hotline is a brief crisis intervention. Before the end of the conversation, they refer the person to a therapist.”
Dr. Ronquillo says a depressed person usually undergoes three levels of coping. The first is the biological level where he should be able to take care of himself. He should get eight to 10 hours of sleep, exercise, eat the right
kind of food, and maintain a balanced diet.
In the psychological level, the person must not dwell anymore on his problems. The highest form of that level is the spiritual sense. “When all else is lost, and that remains, the person is okay.” However, she says the spiritual
factor does not work when the person is experiencing “major depression” because of the chemical imbalances in the brain. Even priests commit suicide.
“No one is exempt. No one is immune. It is like you can’t pull yourself out from the situation you’re in,” she says.
Surrounding themselves with people, nature and the world comprises the third level which is the social level.
Dr. Ronquillo says the family of the suicide victim may also get depressed as a result of the tragedy sooner or later so they also need intervention.
As with Kristel’s suicide, she said that it has happened and that no one was to blame.
“None should be blamed; not even UP, not even the government, the manufacturers of the chemical, the parents, the persons who bully her, nor the teachers who did not give her an admission. No one and not even herself. Some people who have the automatic reaction to point their fingers at someone should avoid this,” she stresses.
Dr. Ronquillo says that the family should be able to get over it, move on, and indulge in activities where they can bond together.
(The NGF has also teamed up with the World Health Organization, Department of Health, Department of Education, Department of Social Welfare and Development as well as educational institutions such as University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University and Miriam College in maintaining the Information and Crisis Intervention Center (ICIC) HOPELINE. The telephone hotline is accessible 24 hours a day, for people who may need help. It works on a referral system: those who man the phone lines assist the callers and refer them to counseling centers and hospitals. The hotline numbers are (632) 804-HOPE (4673), 0917-558-HOPE (4673), 0917-852-HOPE (4673) 2919 (toll-free number for GLOBE and TM subscribers)