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Photo by Vincent Patrick Chan courtesy of Kate Alvarez

Kate Alvarez, a mental health advocate, is a writer, a model, and an actress too. She also has a major depressive disorder. She was first diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder in 2011, after years of trying to treat what she and her doctor had thought to be stress-induced asthma. After a year, she managed her anxiety well enough to start weaning off her medication.

Then tragedy struck. “I lost a loved one to suicide,” Kate says simply. “I will not delve into the details, because it was the darkest point of my life… Lost in my grief and endless questions about what happened, I spiraled into darkness.” Back then, she knew nothing about clinical depression or about the facts and fallacies about suicide. She couldn’t yet tell that there is a difference between sadness — the feeling — and depression — the sickness. Months later, she was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder.

That was the beginning of Kate’s journey in bringing the issue of Mental Health (MH) to light and starting a conversation that would help others who are suffering from mental health issues like her.

Reaching Out

Kate (left) with my fellow mental health advocates Shamaine Buencamino, Nonie Buencaminio, Maud Aimee Javier, and Meryll Soriano at the Buhay: An Exhibit for Suicide Awareness back in 2016.

After her diagnosis, Kate felt alone and often misunderstood by well-meaning (but clueless about mental health) friends and family. She connected with people from the mental health community like the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation. “For the first time, I felt understood,” she says. “I started learning more about depression, bipolar disorder, and other facets of mental health. I started understanding what suicidal people went through, and what I was also going through at that time.”

Recognizing the need to reach out to countless people who are going through the same things that she did, Kate put up a private Facebook group, SOS(Survivors of Suicide) Philippines, and from a small group of grieving families who have lost a loved one to suicide, it has grown to include people who were suffering from depression and bipolar disorder who needed a community too.

Kate learned more about mental health by self-studying psychology through articles, books, and data she had gathered from MH groups and government sectors like the DOH. She got more moderators to help run SOS Philippines. She consulted with psychiatrists, counselors, and other advocates. “I am also part of all MH support groups in the Philippines (we actually have dozens),” she continues. “I am regularly in touch with the Philippine Psychiatric Association, Mental Health PH, and Crisis Line so that I am updated on the mental health act and other MH events.

Bringing the Darkness into the Light

Kate was one of the MH advocates featured in “Buhay: An Exhibit For Suicide Awareness” in October 2016. The girl in the middle is Maud Javier, the photographer who took their portraits.

For the last six years, my journey helped me process my grief, understand my own depression, and eventually heal. It has also helped me help others,” Kate shares.

There’s still a lot to be done though. Despite major strides in bringing awareness on mental health, there is still a stigma connected to depression — even while faced with scientific facts and medical evidence, it’s still often hard for people to understand that it’s not “drama” and it can’t be “prayed away” or “shaken off.”

But despite the challenges, Kate keeps on going. “My own battle keeps me going,” she said. She may not be completely healed from her major depressive disorder, but she is a functioning depressive. She has built for herself a career as a writer, model, and actress. “After battling this disease for 6 years now, I’m finally weaning off meds this year,” she shares. “I’m at the best state I’ve ever been since 2012. I’m aware that triggers can make me spiral down to darkness again, but like a diabetic person who is in control of their sugar level, I am equipped to battle my relapses.”

From her own experience, Kate recognizes the need to talk more about mental health; take away the shame having depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions because they are medical issues that have to be treated and diagnosed, like heart diseases, cancer, and diabetes. The more mental health is discussed, the more we can help the people who have been suffering in silence for a long time.

For more information on mental health and depression, Kate has compiled a list of links to articles, resources, and organizations at her website: http://katewashere.com/mentalhealthph/.

More of Kate’s articles about mental health:

How to help a suicidal friend
10 fallacies about suicide
10 fallacies about depression
Are you clinically depressed?
What you need to know about depression
Worst things to say to someone with depression
5 videos that will help you understand depression
This Pinoy mental health video stars your favorite celebs
Is 13 Reasons Why dangerous or helpful?

 

The abridged version of this article appeared on the Manila Bulletin’s April 8, 2018 edition. 

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