The COVID-19 pandemic, just like previous emergency and crisis situations, activated the UP Visayas Tacloban College (UPVTC) mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) core team. But unlike previous emergency and crisis situations, traditional face-to-face interaction was no longer possible. In a time of physical distancing and stay-at-home measures, MHPSS, as with many other forms of service, had to shift online.
In “Context, Opportunities, and Challenges for MHPSS in the time of COVID-19,” the inaugural episode of Pagsurumpay Online Talk Series streamed on May 23 in UPVTC’s Facebook page and launched in celebration of UPVTC’s 47th founding anniversary, three of the nine-member MHPSS core team discussed the group’s experience and reflected on ways it can improve and move forward in the new normal. It was moderated by fellow team member and UPVTC Psychology faculty member, Prof. Pierce Docena.
Setting the context was Psychology Prof. Ruth Edisel Rylle Sadian-Cercado, who said that “MHPSS” is used in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines in Emergency Settings and “refers to any type of local or outside support that aims to protect of promote psychosocial well-being and/or prevent or treat mental health conditions.”
She explained that MHPSS is nuanced and must be appropriate to the culture, language, health, and social system of the client. Within each population, Sadian-Cercado clarified, there are groups that are more vulnerable than others and their needs must be taken into account as well. These groups include children, elderly, persons with disabilities, marginalized persons such as members of the LGBT community, and in the current pandemic, people with suppressed or compromised immune systems.
Standards in response, the identification of individuals who may be trained to respond, the identification of issues that are inherent to the community, clarity of organization roles, referral pathways, and access to needed services must also be established.
Fellow Psychology professor and UPVTC Office of Student Affairs Coordinator, Dr. Ervina Espina, then discussed the opportunities presented by COVID-19 to the delivery of MHPSS. First of which was the use of ICT as the shift to online mode has become inevitable. The creation of online platforms, use of digital resources and materials, and tele-processing were all part of moving away from face-to-face sessions.
The pandemic also allowed the team to focus on specific groups such as UPVTC students and frontline workers. It opened avenues for partnerships with psychiatrists in Eastern Visayas and with organizations like Cognitio+. Espina expressed the group’s desire to eventually expand its clientele and create an MHPSS webinar series.
Dr. Mary Jane Flores of Chong Hua Hospital in Mandaue, Cebu and one of the team’s supervising clinical psychologists talked about the challenges in MHPSS at this time. While the shift to online mode afforded many possibilities in the delivery of MHPSS, it was not without problems. Access and connectivity were still major problems. In addition, the team also had varying levels of technical know-how. The team itself only consisted of nine members and continued to look for possible qualified recruits or those trained in psychological first aid (PFA).
As for client response, Flores pointed out the low turnout of respondents, numbering around 70. And in this group who filled out the online rapid assessment form, only around ten were willing to communicate further. She said that the low turnout may be attributed to lack of access, not enough dissemination of UPVTC’s MHPSS offering, and/or fear of stigmatization. As for those who were hesitant to talk with members of the team, she surmised that it may be due to their perception of their ability to cope, protection of their privacy, and/or the perception of the services provided or the people providing the services.
Sadian-Cercado added that help-seeking needs courage and depends on the person’s readiness to talk. She also said that the low response may also be a good thing if it means that more people were coping better with the crisis.
Moving forward, Flores emphasized the need to continuously evaluate the MHPSS program; to remove the negative image of the need for mental health services through education; to increase awareness on available resources and services; and to strengthen institutional support for MHPSS.
To end the online discussion, Sadian-Cercado, Espina, and Flores left the following messages:
● Stress and fear are normal responses to a crisis;
● Listen to what you feel;
● Do not be ashamed or afraid to ask for help;
● Make connections;
● Your level of well-being is not entirely dependent on your circumstances; and
● Never think that there is nothing you can do to make yourself feel better and that you can always make yourself feel better.