As vaccination against COVID-19 rises, in-person interactions are booming up even as isolations and physical distancing are at times taken for granted. Despite this welcome development, neurologist Dr. Konstantinos Petsanis worried that in life post-pandemic, “mental health repercussions regarding what is happening during this pandemic for people, today and beyond, will really be a problem in general.” 

Data in 2020 suggest that Filipinos have the third highest rate of mental disorders in the Western Pacific. Mental illness has become the third most common disability in the country, wherein six million Pinoys live with depression and anxiety. 

With its operations now running at 100% capacity, the institute maintains its helpline “Kumusta, Ka-PhilRice?” to provide psychosocial assistance, referral, or access for further professional help. The hotline was launched in April 2020 even before the Department of Health called for “building a resilient mental health system for all” in November 2020. The United Registered Social Workers, a team of mental health professionals that offers free, confidential, and psychosocial support services to those smothered by COVID-19, is a partner in maintaining this hotline.

During the peak of the health crisis in 2021, “Kumusta, Ka-PhilRice?” served as a tool in assessing the situation and monitoring the psychological conditions of personnel who were infected by the virus and had to be isolated.

A Psychological First Aid program was also put up by our Human Resource Management Office (HRMO) to handle health threats. Launched a few weeks after the Luzonwide lockdown in March 2020, trained psychological first aiders were deployed in the central and branch stations to cater to staffers who did not have immediate access to professional help. They provided counsel and conducted mindfulness and debriefing sessions. 

Introduced to promote psychosocial well-being, resilience, and prevent mental impairment among the staff, mindfulness and debriefing sessions helped people who might be having feelings of distress, panic, fear, and worry by offering ways of healthy coping, providing feelings of safety, and hope. The sessions also empowered our workers in reducing distress caused by the pandemic and fostered short- and long-term adaptive functioning and coping. Several schedules of debriefing sessions were also done virtually from May to July 2020 and in March and April 2021 when the institute was stunned by the surge of positive COVID-19 cases. 

The DA-PhilRice Mental Health Program Committee was put up in adherence to the Civil Service Commission MC No. 04, S. 2020, “Mental Health Program in the Public Sector.” 

“Being away from family and feeling discriminated affected my mental health. Other than these concerns, I worried about my office tasks already piling up due to my isolation. The sessions lightened up my burden because I felt like a community full of love was supporting me,” one of the researchers who contracted COVID-19 recalled. 

As a rendezvous of graduates from different universities nationwide, the campus assisted rice workers “trapped” in their temporary residences and could not go home to their families.

“Many personnel struggled with and survived the lockdowns in their dorms and apartments or rented homes, solely relying on the internet to stay connected with their family and friends. This alone had some serious effects on the workers—the anxiety of being away and in isolation while also being worried about their family that is far from them,” said Ma. Ethel Gibe, HRMO head.

Although back-to-normal was the society’s dream during the height of the pandemic, studies show that the fear of missing out has been replaced by the fear of normal, which is manifested by the continued fear of infection, to being stressed with the resumed interactions outside the household.

Amidst advice on self-care in this pandemic, rice workers can always turn to the institute’s established mental health program. As Vibrate Higher Daily founder Lalah Delia said, “self-care is how you take your power back.”

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Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) is a government corporate entity attached to the Department of Agriculture created through Executive Order 1061 on 5 November 1985 (as amended) to help develop high-yielding and cost-reducing technologies so farmers can produce enough rice for all Filipinos.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute