By Edel Agarao, Charlene Esteban, De Anne Pilapil
Living with a disability or attending to special needs can be a challenge, and this is especially highlighted for those with “invisible” disabilities. These types of disabilities are not always immediately apparent to others and may not be visible on the surface. However, this does not mean that they are any less real or impactful. Mental disorders, including both cognitive and psychosocial, affect a large number of people. Many students with mental disorders face numerous challenges in navigating their university life, from stigma and discrimination to limited support and resources. With mental health challenges on the rise, it is imperative that academic institutions create an accepting and inclusive environment for all students, especially those with ‘invisible’ disabilities.
In the Philippines, we have multiple legislations that recognize and protect the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). These comprehensive acts for inclusivity are present in paper yet there’s a relative absence in its effective implementation and reach even for public and private tertiary students, staff, and teachers. One notable national policy is the recently signed Mental Health Act of 2018 (Republic Act No. 11036). The legislation has a particular objective to promote mental health and well-being in educational institutions. This coincides with mental health (MH) literacy, stigma addression, sensitivity and awareness, and risk support for higher education constituents which majorly consist of students. In the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) there are varying points of view as to how these MIH strategies are implemented.
In the university, efforts for mental health visibility are actively recognized and advocated through the efforts of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (OVCSA) – Office of Counseling and Guidance (OCG). According to Dr. Erick Vernon Dy, guidance services specialist from OCG and also a person with psychosocial disability, UPLB recognizes that inclusive infrastructures are important together with accessible services and programs for unseen disabilities such as MH concerns.
He pointed out that there are special consideration programs available to eligible students with MH expenses such as the UP Student Wellness Subsidy Program (UP SWSP). However, there are limited slots for the financial aid program which only began last year. Along with the monetary aid, listed below are the ongoing wellness support activities and services in UPLB:
- OCG consultation with a junior psychometrician and counseling with a guidance services specialist, Art-based Intervention Program, Sandigan Sandalan: Peer Support Program, BARKada at CATropa Animal-assisted Intervention (AAI) program, Gabay Volunteer Corps,
- OVCSA Wellness Program Yoga Class,
- University Health Service (UHS) psychiatry consultation
In dealing with special cases, the OCG carefully designs their activities and programs to accommodate a wider range of students instead of focusing on PWDs. “Mayroon kasing stigma na kaakibat kapag masyadong ina-identify [ang PWDs] (There’s a stigma attached when PWDs are especially identified),” Dr. Dy explained. Although he added that hopefully, it’s the concerned target PWDs who benefit and will continue to access most of their ongoing services.
Dr. Dy also stated that the university coordinates with the OCG for the MH concerns of screened freshman students. With respect to data privacy, the considerations are worked with the college faculties and concerned personnel. In order to give proper assistance, the OCG staff are trained for counseling and communicating with students weighed down by mental health issues. And for their office to address students’ problems, he said that “Yung taong mismong concerned ang nagsasabi dapat, kasi hindi nga pwedeng alam din lahat ni committee o nung office na iyon kung ‘di mo ipapaalam (The concerned person should report their condition because the committee or office can’t know everything without people reporting).”
Moreover, Dr. Dy inferred that there’s a generalization of PWDs with visible or physical disabilities only, although he doesn’t discount the gravity of such cases. “Mali yung logo ng PWD (The PWD logo is wrong),” he commented humorously. The logo reinforces the stereotype, he hinted that it should be revised to a more inclusive one. As he himself has a condition classified as a psychosocial disability, he’s had experiences of being indirectly treated unfairly when using PWD facilities where he was required to show his PWD ID. With this, he recognizes the importance of understanding and sensitivity to invisible disabilities. To concretely address these, he added the urgency of a higher budget allocation for MH which they’re lobbying for.
UPLB Students on Mental Health Challenges
Aaron Naco, a first-year Agribusiness Management and Entrepreneurship student diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), specifically Combined Type ADHD, and Bipolar II Disorder, shared his experience as a UPLB student with a Mental disorder. For Naco, these conditions significantly impact his daily life as a student. Making it challenging for him to focus on tasks and keeping up with the demands of the college workload. Although he learned how to mask his conditions throughout his childhood, the pressures of his current academic setup made it increasingly difficult to manage. In particular, he shared that he struggles with “analysis paralysis”, a common symptom of ADHD, that makes it hard for him to make decisions or move forward with tasks.
As a High-functioning ADHD individual, Naco’s struggles were often stigmatized as they are not as visible as those with severe cases. He recalls being labeled a “gifted” ADHD patient by his own psychiatrist because of his ability to carry out daily tasks, but he found this difficult to accept. Naco expressed that he does not want his condition to be regarded as a “gift” because of how much he was disadvantaged by this mental disorder. He then decided to change his psychiatrist which shed better light to his condition. With the aid of another treatment and prescribed medications, he achieved “mental clarity” which enabled him to cope with the challenges of his college life amid the pandemic. However, these medications come with an expensive tag. According to him, his monthly medication expenses are approximately 3,000 pesos, while his psychiatrist’s fee is an additional 4,000 pesos per month, culminating in a total monthly cost of 7,000 pesos.
“Na-lessen naman siya dahil may PWD ID ako pero still, ang laking pasanin pa rin ng 7,000 pesos per month just for one person in my family, may kapatid din akong nag-aaral (The costs were lessened because I have a PWD ID; however the expenses are still high for a single person in a family. Aside from that, I also have siblings who study),” he shared.
Naco expressed that it would be immensely beneficial if the university could heed the requests of individuals with special needs and offer them special assistance, such as enough financial aid, to alleviate the burden of medication costs.
Some students at UPLB with mental disorders or mental health concerns have expressed their distress about the efficiency and consistency of the university’s mental health services. They are hoping for improvements to the university’s mental health programs and activities. Despite the availability of services such as the UP SWSP and other special needs subsidies, students have reported that they have not been able to access them due to various reasons such as delayed inquiries and difficulties with the monetary distribution process. In some cases, students were not even aware that these services existed. Other students that have already applied for the assistance emphasized that had they not researched potential assistance programs, they would not know about it.
Marielle Apurado, a student previously diagnosed with Hyperactivity, shared that she was not aware that there were subsidies offered by the university. “Di ako na-orient about this actually na may ganito kaming klaseng subsidy na ino-offer. Mahirap i-access yung information if di ka talaga mag-sesearch (I was not aware of these types of subsidies offered. It’s hard to access this information if you don’t actively search for it).” Apurado further stated that the system lacks dissemination strategies.
“Hihintayin pa ba nating may mangyari dun sa students na nag-rerequest ng help bago natin sila tulungan?” (Are we going to wait for something to happen to the students asking for help before we help them?),” she stated regarding the current system of services provided to students with special needs and concerns.
As a collective, the students are eager for an overall improvement in the university’s action for addressing the gaps and issues regarding their situation. This could involve improving communication and outreach efforts to ensure that students are aware of the available services, simplifying the application process, and ensuring that the services are distributed in a timely and equitable manner. Additionally, a more unified and organized support system for students with mental disorders and special needs should be established, so that students feel encouraged to be open and seek the help they need.
Some of the recommendations suggested to improve the situation of students with special needs and concerns in the university include the following:
More Frequent and Regular Sensing Forms
The distributed sensing forms are used to assess the current mental state of students. Currently, the only recognized and recorded sensing forms were conducted by the University Student Council (USC) from previous semesters and were more frequent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students are suggesting to distribute a more frequent university-wide sensing form, particularly at the beginning, middle, and towards the end of every semester to sufficiently monitor the students’ mental health and wellbeing.
Dr. Dy has also expressed that the office encourages students to open up and relay their special concerns to identify possible solutions and support them as much as possible. Sensing forms can help different university offices to understand the situation of students better.
Student-led Organizations for People with Special Needs
As there are currently no university entities in charge of providing services to students and employees with special needs and concerns, some have suggested the formation of a student-led organization that will be focused on attempting to address the concerns and issues being experienced by people with special needs in the university.
Proper Orientation and Wider Dissemination of Mental Health Services
Given that some students with special needs are not aware of the Mental Health provisions and assistance offered by the university, they suggested improving the system’s information dissemination methods which would properly orient and engage students about the specific subsidies and services that are available. There should be an evaluation of the current public communication systems in place.
Increase Psychiatrists and Counselors for Consultation Needs
Some students have also expressed their grievances regarding the lack of manpower, specifically for the health services that students with mental health disorders and concerns need. They highlighted their positive experiences with psychiatry sessions and their difficulties in acquiring appointments as there is only one licensed psychiatrist in the University Health Service (UHS), entailing a high demand for consultations.
“Magpapaconsult ka lang sa UHS, aabutin ka ng ilang weeks, just to get a consultation. Tapos minsan, di ka pa ma-schedule agad. Paano yung mga taong inaalam pa lang kung meron silang special needs like depression, anxiety and such? (It takes several weeks just to get a consultation from the UHS and sometimes, they don’t schedule you immediately. What happens to the people who want to know if they have special needs like depression, anxiety, and such?),”Apurado states on the lack of manpower and guidance counselors for the consultation needs of students.
Naco compared booking an appointment with the psychiatrist in UHS is like a tight race. “Isa lang yung psychiatrist, si Dra. Palis, kahit free [of charge] siya, undermanned pa din tayo of psychiatrists dito sa UPLB (There is only one psychiatrist, Dra. Palis. Even if it’s free [of charge], UPLB is still undermanned when it comes to psychiatrists).”
Improve Dissemination of Monetary Assistance Provisions
Some students have also emphasized the need for alternative channels that would be available to all students, especially those that have difficulties accessing digital financial channels which the university presumably adopts for their assistance provisions, and those that are financially challenged in maintaining these accounts. Dr. Dy also mentioned that government budget transactions are only processed through Landbank, emphasizing the extensive processing that subsidies and assistance transactions undergo to be validated.
“May students naman na kayang mag-apply pero walang 500 [maintaining balance]. Paano kung walang ganun yung student? So dapat may option na pupunta na lang sa UHS, ibigay na lang in cash. Hindi naman lahat may ATM, hindi naman lahat may cashless banking. May kilala ako, wala pang Gcash, paano pa kaya yung normal banking? Dapat mas maraming channels ng pagbigay, kailangan may physical money din (There are students who are able to apply, but they do not have the 500 pesos needed to maintain their own bank accounts. What if a student is incapable of paying? There should be an option where they can go to the UHS directly, and receive a cash alternative. Not everyone has an ATM account, not everyone has cashless banking. I know someone who does not have Gcash, what more for normal banking?),” Naco said.
There have been many challenges and issues experienced by students with mental health disorders or concerns, most of which are related to the existing services for students with special needs (i.e. lack of proper dissemination, financial assistance, etc.). Moreover, students with “invisible” or unseen disabilities have to go through the stigma which perceives persons with disabilities as only those that fall under the physical category. Students that need special considerations regarding their mental health conditions are especially implicated and affected by their conditions in their daily and academic life.
With this, the university is striving to provide services similar to the Mental Health Subsidy previously provided to several students. However, Dr. Dy explained that this project is currently pending confirmation because the system is under a transition phase for newly-elected officials. Beyond this, there are still no updates on possible improvements or provisions regarding students’ special needs.
He has also emphasized that there needs to be a collective effort to improve university services and the overall situation of those with special needs and concerns. He also encourages them to open up and relay their needs in detail so that the university can properly address these and provide assistance.
“Mangyayari lang talaga yung full service kapag nagsabi yung nangangailangan, kasi hindi naman alam ni university kung paano ibibigay yun kung hindi niya alam na kailangan mo. Hindi rin siya manghuhula. Kailangan pareho, hindi kasi pwedeng nagtuturuan, ganoon din sa services, sa mga programs, sa mga dapat gawin (Full service can only happen when those who need it say something, because the university does not know how to provide service without knowing their needs. They will not guess. Both [people with special needs and university officials] are needed, we cannot point fingers, especially in services and programs that need to be done.),” Dr. Dy emphasized.
Recognizing the Importance of Equity over Equality in University Programs for People with Disabilities
When it comes to university programs for people with disabilities, it is important to recognize the need for equity rather than just equality. This means that rather than offering the same programs to everyone, we need to acknowledge and address the unique needs of individuals with disabilities. By doing so, we can create more inclusive programs that provide the necessary support and accommodations for those who require them. Therefore, it is crucial for universities to develop programs that cater to the special needs of people with disabilities, rather than assuming that a one-size-fits-all approach will work for everyone.