“I’m fine, you don’t have to worry about me,” a good friend of mine shared to me.

This was the response I got from a friend who shared to me about her sudden emotional outbursts because of fear from losing her job. She is one of the many Filipinos who belong to the ‘no work, no pay’ scheme of several manufacturing companies.  She relies on her daily output to be able to earn a salary for the day.

Here in Asia, or at least in the Philippines, mental health remains to be rarely discussed.  We grow up in a society that shines negative light to the people who go through some form of anxiety or depression.  In fact, while we belong to a community-based society where individuals come from large families who are viewed to have strong emotional support, more often than not, it is the very relatives or family members who would quickly dismiss thoughts or opportunities of discussion about mental disorders.

Just last April 2020, an army veteran was shot dead alleged to be reaching for his gun. The army veteran was later on identified to be a mentally ill former soldier who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He was formerly stationed at Marawi – a city sieged by terrorist insurgents back in 2017.

Aside from the close-knit family culture of most Asian countries, common causes such as community shame, lack of understanding, and judgement from society all stems from deep-rooted cultural constructs. It is quite prevalent, up until now, within Filipino context that asking for help might bring shame to the family once the community finds out about a family member being ‘broken’.  Family pride supersedes any member’s mental disorder.

From ‘you don’t have to worry about me’ to making doodles.

When I posted that I was offering psychological first aid to Covid-19 first responders, entrepreneurs with businesses that were on operational shutdown, and for employees who are going through emotional instability, one of my friends shared her acute distress.  At first she was hesitant to share details about it, which I fully respected. Eventually, I asked her to get a pen and paper and make scribbles and doodle whatever she felt at that moment. There was no need for her to share details of what she was going through. 

And immediately, she started to create doodles. There were no words needed. She looked for a pen and paper and started to doodle. It was a sight of relief looking at her expressing her thoughts in thick and jagged lines.  It was a relief that it only needed a pen and paper for her to realise how distressed she was, but kept it under lock because of fears of embarrassing her family.

Growing up in an Asian household, we have to constantly prove our worth – by attaining high grades, achieving that degree, landing a highly coveted 8-5 job, getting married at a certain age, or having kids for the grandparents to enjoy. As much as it is of life’s highlights, much of it is also about saving face for the family.  Now, that most people are filing for job losses and businesses are running bankrupt, it is hard to save face when everyone is going through exactly the same thing.

Whenever I conduct psychological first aid to company employees and entrepreneurs, I always find the Asian cultural context as the largest wall to overcome. Yet, while being an artist, I was able to leverage on personal expression and creativity to break this wall.

In the middle of scribbling and doodling, our conversation started to go deeper about the emotions running inside of her.  She soon realised that her doodles were the exact visual representation of the chaos that’s been inside of her ever since the pandemic began. She gave a sigh of relief. Though it was not an immediate fix, we understood that it was a huge weight which needed to be out of her system.

In psychological first aid through art, we understand that we can’t fix people’s problems. We are here to support and mitigate acute signs of distress, and based upon evidence of the disposition of the individual to function effectively in the wake of the current pandemic. A decision is normally made if there is a need to facilitate access to a higher level of care, and it is here we conduct art therapy sessions.

Right now, I am happy to share that my friend is back on her daily routine – back to being productive by doing small food delivery business. It was that simple act of compassionate care and deciding to pick up a pair of pen and paper that allowed her to be back on track.

Words and digital art by Francis Sollano.