Monday, October 14, 2013

Mental Illness is a Disability --- When Will the Philippines Catch Up?

I've been looking for an article similar to this for a long time.

See, some 5 years ago, I took on a writing project for a US-based NGO that advocates for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs). While doing research for the series of articles I had to make, I came across US laws that specifically identified mental illness, such as Major Depressive Disorder, as disability. Like learning disabilities, mental illness is classified as a hidden disability.

What does this mean?

Being a disability, persons with mental illness are legally entitled to the same rights as those with other kinds of disabilities. These rights include discounts on basic necessities like medicines and food. It also means being entitled to reasonable accommodation in the workplace. Furthermore, companies are prohibited from asking questions related to mental health history without a concrete job offer. 

Sadly, our definition of mental disability in this country is limited to mental health issues related to loss of reality testing (e.g. schizophrenia) and mental retardation. Thus, rights for persons with mental illness are not accessed by everyone concerned. When will, say, diagnosed mood disorders be included as an acceptable definition of disability? For yes, those with these conditions can spend days, if not months, unable to earn a living. I know there were months, back when my mood disorder was at its peak, when I could not even summon the will to work.

An excerpt from the article worth reflecting upon:

It is also important to note that there is no mental health legislation for those with mental disabilities. The Department of Health does have mental health policies, but the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons is not specifically for mental disabilities. It provides for special rights and privileges for the physically impaired (their mobility is enhanced through sidewalks, railings, ramps and the like); the hearing-impaired are benefited by TV stations that provide a sign-language inset or subtitles, and telephone companies are encouraged to install special devices for them. The Magna Carta provides for the “mentally retarded” under the provisions on education. Mental retardation, however, is only one kind of mental disability. In fact, there are mentally disabled persons with superior intelligence—the complete opposite of mentally retarded persons. 

Why does this matter interests me so much?

One of the things that I've worried about being a person with Bipolar Disorder is surviving full time work in a company. I'm lucky, I have skills that help me become an independent service-provider, which means that I can basically control my schedule. I can, for example, choose to take a break when I feel an attack coming. 

But part of me also feels that if I can find a company understanding enough to provide reasonable accommodation I can thrive in the corporate world. Reasonable accommodation doesn't equate to special treatment --- key result areas are not watered down and only adjustments that don't represent "undue burden" qualifies. For instance, persons with diagnosed mental illness can request to take breaks based on need not on company schedule. If the job is flexible enough that there's room to take stress breaks, no harm is done. (You can learn more about reasonable accommodation here.)

Here's the problem: without a law protecting this right, dare you even raise the matter to management? Requesting reasonable accommodation is a tricky thing in a country where stigma against mental illness is strong. Ensuring that your request is kept confidential is another. Getting your co-workers to understand without feeling that life is unfair is something else.

It makes me wonder how many persons with mental illness out there are potential star employees. Probably a lot. Many persons with mental health conditions are smart, skilled, and hard-working. The question is: can the government protect them enough so that they can pursue a fuller life? Furthermore, can the state punish companies who refuse to do the right thing?

I am passionate about doing something about this. This is why I started Possibilities, I want to give workshops to companies about psychological well-being in the workplace that includes mental health advocacy.

Anyway, kudos to Ms. Corpuz for bringing this matter into public awareness. I pray for improved service to persons with mental illness in this country soon.

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