UP mental health providers stretched thin as students grow anxious over remote learning

What you need to know: 

  • The UP Diliman University Health Service and UPD PsycServ noted an increase in the number of students availing of their mental health services this semester.
  • The increase in sign-ups suggests difficulties with pandemic-related concerns and anxiety induced by remote learning.
  • UP plans to release a directory of mental health providers to address the limited number of mental health professionals. 

As slots quickly fill up for consultations and counseling sessions, UP mental health providers grapple with a rising number of students seeking psychosocial help only weeks into the semester.

Even before October, all sessions for the month have already been booked for mental health consultations with UP Diliman’s sole resident psychiatrist Dr. Dinah Nadera.

Given the limitations of consulting patients through phone calls or messaging applications, Nadera can only accommodate four to five patients daily with University Health Service’s (UHS) new appointment system in which booking a slot is done through their website uphs.appointlet.com or their hotline. 

Dati kasi kapag sampu ang darating, titingnan ko lahat kahit mag-overtime ako. Ngayon kasi, naka-deck na sila, so kapag nagcancel ang isa, wala akong masunod na isa… It makes it more difficult in terms of maximizing my time,” Nadera said. 

Meanwhile, she has now been closely monitoring more patients outside her office hours, with 10 to 15 individuals who have concerns on medication, symptom progression and self-harm. Before, she only monitored five to seven patients. 

As the semester progresses, Nadera noted that anxiety is the main reason why students consult, followed by sleep hygiene and concentration problems. 

“Ngayon pa lang… may mga estudyante na who are thinking of dropping… who are already worried about their attention and concentration and who feel very unprepared and inadequate for [remote] learning,” she said. 

UP Diliman Psychosocial Services (UPD PsycServ), a special project under the Office of the Chancellor that seeks to address students’ mental health needs, noted that September had the highest number of sign-ups in a month since they were established in 2017. 

UPD PsycServ currently has a two-month long waiting list for their free telepsychotherapy services, which is therapy done through call or text messaging applications. 

“May increase so far sa number of sign-ups na nag-i-indicate that they are having problems with online classes,” UPD PsycServ Clinic Manager Claudine Tecson said.

Tecson added that the increase in sign-ups suggests difficulties with pandemic-related concerns, such as safety, health-related anxiety, feelings of isolation and frustration toward the pandemic response.  

Individuals with preexisting psychiatric and life issues are also affected by the current situation which have added to the number of sign-ups, the UPD PsycServ Clinic Manager said. 

Limitations of telepsychotherapy

Fine Arts student Alex* had to wait for two months before he was accommodated.

“I urged to seek help at PsycServ, since I have prior experience noong first year ako. I remember medyo matagal-tagal din ‘yung line up dati [noong 2017], but ‘di naman naabutan ng 2 months,” he said.

Having been accustomed to face-to-face sessions before, Alex took a while to adjust to telepsychotherapy.

“I don’t really feel comfortable sharing emotional stuff sa bahay so it’s a really big challenge for me to open myself up fully sa counselor ko. The sessions were flexible since I requested that via chat lang ‘yung sessions namin and they had no problems with it,” he said.

Malikhaing Pagsulat student Shaira Guiyab sought the services of UPD PsycServ in May. This was her first time consulting a mental health professional given the high costs of these services in the country. 

Guiyab said that the limitations of consulting via phone is inhibited by the lack of privacy at home, so she asked her psychotherapist to communicate with her through a messaging application instead.

Parang hindi lang consistent pag-uusap namin kasi nga text, mabagal kumbaga,” she added.

Despite the hindrances, both found the sessions with UPD PsycServ helpful.

“I feel relieved and medyo [naging] stable ako noong nag-sessions na kami… The counselling supplemented my healing and recovery sa problems ko,” Alex said. 

Hardships of mental health professionals

UPD PsycServ currently has only 14 Psychosocial Support Specialists working part-time who cater to a months-long list of sign-ups.

Since UPD PsycServ has yet to be institutionalized, they have to renew their annual contracts and have their budget approved every year on top of their already heavy workload. 

(READ MORE: UPD struggles to meet students’ rising mental health demands)

Without institutionalization, UPD PsycServ staff cannot enjoy benefits such as job security, healthcare, social insurance among others.

To hire additional mental health professionals, Tecson said that UPD PsycServ had to request for an exemption from the Moratorium in Hiring of Non-UP and UP Contractuals to the UP Office of the President. 

The moratorium, which took effect in September 2017, was imposed by President Danilo Concepcion to address the university’s problems on job contractualization. A freeze on employing non-UP and UP contractuals would allow the administration to compile the available data they have on contractualization in UP as they work on the issue.

But UPD PsycServ has found it harder to hire additional mental health professionals amid a pandemic, especially since the contracts of their new recruits would also expire in December 2020, Tecson said. 

As mental health professionals double down on the influx of patients, they are also not exempted from the effects of the lockdown.

“I am starting to talk to my colleagues also on how to protect my own mental health. … It’s really difficult because there is no boundary between tasks,” Nadera said. 

Volunteer initiatives over the UP System

As mental health services struggle with a limited workforce, UPD PsycServ recruited volunteers to manage their social media accounts.

By releasing infographics with translated versions, Tecson believes that their content on social media can help raise mental health awareness.  

Volunteer initiative is also evident in Ugnayan ng Pahinungód, the volunteer service arm of the UP System.

Through their Committee on Psychosocial Emergency Services, Ugnayan ng Pahinungód seeks to ease the load of mental health specialists by providing the first layer of psychosocial support. Their services include a resource hub, referral mechanism and training volunteers.

Their recent initiative provides psychosocial support in six out of eight UP units: UP Diliman, UP Baguio, UP Cebu, UP Los Baños, UP Visayas and UP Mindanao. 

The volunteers are required to undergo training on psychological first aid and related topics. After completing the training program, volunteers can accept requests from those who seek support through the initiative. 

UP mental health plans and problems

There is a dearth of mental health professionals in the country, with only two to three mental health workers per 100,000 population, according to a 2007 study of the World Health Organization and the Department of Health. 

As a workaround for this problem, the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs (OVPAA) plans to release a network of referrals for the UP community. 

Assistant Vice President (AVP) for Student Affairs Richard Gonzalo said a Directory of Mental Health Providers for all campuses will be rolled out soon through the different Information Offices.

In the directory, there are mental health service providers who cater to three categories: those with mental health problems but are undiagnosed, those with mental disorders and those who need continuous monitoring through psychosocial rehabilitation. 

To reach students with no internet access, the OVPAA also plans to deliver the directory along with the course packs, Gonzalo said.

In addressing the lack of manpower, the UPD UHS proposed the hiring of social workers as case managers, hiring of additional psychiatrists and intensive training of nurses on mental health.

However, Nadera said that hiring new mental health professionals will not be easy.

“It’s difficult kasi to get a psychiatrist who will stay in the university, and ‘yung regular salary… medyo okay kasi ‘yung [sa] private practice ng iba,” she said.

The AVP for Academic Affairs believes that mental health stigma still hinders people from seeking help. 

“Dahil sa stigma [sa mental health], ang hirap i-promote ang tinatawag na help-seeking behavior; you have to recognize first that you have a mental health concern,” he said.

While volunteer initiatives complement the mandate of mental health institutions, Gonzalo said there should still be other systems in place where students can get mental health support. 

“If you look at the lines and queues as an indicator of adequacy of mental health professionals and services, it’s very obvious na kulang ‘yung mental health services,” Gonzalo said. 

For mental health support, you may contact the National Mental Health Crisis hotline at 7989-8727 or 0917 899 8727 (Globe).

You may also contact:

Hopeline Philippines’ 24/7 hotlines at 0917 558 4673 (Globe), 02-88044673 (PLDT) or 2919 (toll-free for Globe and TM)

In Touch Community Services at (02) 893 7603, 0917 800 1123 (Globe) or 0922 893 8944 (Sun)

UPD PsycServ at 0916 757 3157 (Globe) or 0906 374 3466 (Globe)

University Health Service at 8981-8500 local 2702.

*The name of the interviewee has been changed at his request.

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