Suicide, Smiles, and the Saserdote

by Alpheus Llantero, FINDink Contributor

In the Philippines, the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation has a depression and suicide prevention hotline to help those secretly suffering from depression. The numbers to call are ‎804–4673 and ‎0917–558–4673. More information is available on its website.

In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are in crisis, call 1–800–273–8255.

Content Warning: Mentions of suicide and mental trauma.


For all the values instilled by the Spanish colonization, Catholicism visibly remains the greatest remnant. The Catholic Church teaches the Filipino how they ought to live, and more importantly, how they ought to die. For many, Christianity has been the saving grace of a country where nearly a quarter of its population lives a hand-to-mouth existence — isang kahig, isang tuka. The kingdom of heaven is not theirs on earth, but theirs in heaven. Endure the miserable existence, so that one day, you may be rewarded — endure the evictions, the hurricanes, the slave-like labor and menial wages — so one day, the kingdom of heaven be yours.

It is not a surprise that the public conceives the image of a happy Filipino. Numerous pictures and articles have showcased the impoverished-but-smiling Filipino, a testament to the resilience of the Filipino spirit. A poll last March reported that 87 percent of Filipinos are “very happy and satisfied with life”, despite half of the population rating themselves poor. The National Statistics Office reports that 17 to 20 percent of Filipinos are diagnosed with some form of mental illness, with a recorded suicide rate of 3.2 for every 100,000 people. How can we reconcile these troubling, conflicting statistics?

“Talk to a priest” may be the answer to suicidal ideation — a common refrain among elders who may commonly see one’s intent as a symptom of normal emotions of difficulty or sadness, kalungkutan. After all, life really is hard. For those that live in poverty, the physical and financial hardship is already an established fact. That’s why for variety show host Joey de Leon, “Yung depression, gawa-gawa lang ng mga tao ‘yan. Gawa nila sa sarili nila”, depression is made-up by people; it’s their attitude.

Happiness is the only option for the poor Filipino, it is needed for their survival. It is needed for the worker who goes home to their family after long hours on the factory or field — that they may wake up the next day with purpose and go through the process all over again. The struggle is subdued through a culture of “good vibes lang”, “let’s look at the bright side of things”, let’s stay positive”, or “a negative mind only sees faults”. It is a culture that is reinforced by asking the poor Filipino people to get on their knees and look to the Lord, for indeed, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The culture of happiness proves quite helpful in the face of tragedy — it has fostered a generous interdependence that built the then-leveled City of Tacloban from the ground up after Typhoon Haiyan, and literally moves houses from one barangay to another, the classic example of bayanihan, the ancient Filipino custom of group work. The culture of happiness is quite useful in another regard — in the exploitation of the Filipino. For the Oversees Filipino Worker, the culture of happiness binds together the suffering Filipino; the domestic helper based in Hong Kong lament their subhuman treatment to fellow abused Filipinos. And the exploiter persists in their exploitation, because the Filipino persists in their “enjoyment” of exploitation.

If anything sounds familiar, look no further than the values that the Spaniards instilled in their subjugated people. The qualities of “hard work” in men and docility in women are exactly what the colonizers needed, in that they fulfill the needs of the Encomienda system and the needs of the household. These are the qualities of a good Catholic; these are the qualities that shall make the kingdom of heaven yours.

But even for the not-as-exploited middle and upper-middle class, their experience, too, is that of vulnerability. Growing wealth and upward mobility has led to increased pressures to sustain such progress. Pressures manifest themselves at work with extended hours, or at school with the perfect GPA in the hopes that one may land a spot at the premier University of the Philippines or study abroad; this is the “hard-working” Filipino. And do not submit to rest or defeat, for you ought to overcome.

Suicide in the Philippines is actually among the lowest in Asia. But its optimistic numbers are undercut by the non-acceptance of suicide, as per Catholic dogma. There is a sense of shame for the mentally ill, or for those who have died because of suicide — the idea of one taking “the easy way out” emerges, as well as the anger of a lost source of income or interpersonal support. Because of this, a large percentage of the deaths actually attributed to suicide are actually reported as an injury or accident. Filipinos do not want to confront their families with the reality of a loved one taking their own life. Good vibes lang.

Not until June 2018 did the Philippines have a mental health law providing for the implementation of mental health services. The lack of a framework to provide access to critical services has left the Philippines with a mere 600 psychiatrists in a country of 100 million people. While Republic Act 11036 presents itself with potential as a starting point to change attitudes surrounding mental health, the much larger problem with the culture of happiness must be addressed.

Filipinos should feel sad, too. Filipinos should allow themselves to feel sad. Filipinos should allow their fellow Filipinos to feel sad. To allow the recognition of negative emotions is to allow the recognition of problems, and the recognition of problems is to allow the recognition of solutions.

Disclaimer: The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of FIND, Inc.