February 15, 2024
8 minute read time

On Mental Health: Empath is making quality mental healthcare easily accessible in the country

The PINO Team
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It’s no secret that more importance has been placed on mental health in the past few years. International bodies like the World Health Organization, national governments, and local non-profits have been actively seeking solutions and launching initiatives to make quality mental healthcare accessible.

Given these developments, what does this mean for the Philippines? How do these initiatives affect and improve the modern workplace? How does attention and care to mental health affect our creativity?

Steph Naval, Founder and CEO of Empath, talks about how the social enterprise that she started in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is taking strides in spreading awareness, destigmatizing mental health issues, and making quality mental healthcare more readily accessible and affordable in the Philippines.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am Steph Naval and I am the founder and CEO of Empath, a social enterprise that envisions accessible mental healthcare and psychoeducation. Mental health is an advocacy that has resonated with me since my adolescent years and my experiences have led me to create a business that would help empower Filipinos through ensuring that their mental health is valued, promoted, and protected.

We officially started our operations in the middle of the pandemic in 2020 through offering online counseling services. Since then, we have grown our team to over 50 individuals that consist of employees, interns, mental health professionals, and volunteers as well as offer more comprehensive and customizable services to help individuals, companies, non-profits, and schools with their varying mental health concerns.

Because of our team’s work, we were able to secure a P2.1M non-equity grant from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) as one of the top 9 women-led social enterprises in the country. We have also established over 40 partnerships with schools, nonprofits and companies in less than 2 years, thus, greatly contributing to addressing the issue of mental healthcare inaccessibility in the Philippines.

We are spearheading collaborations with different educational institutions, enterprises, and non-profit organizations to continue raising awareness and develop policies and programs on mental health issues, correct the stigma and discrimination associated with mental conditions, and provide proper access to treatment, psychosocial support, and other related services.

Outside of Empath, I also engage in mentoring more female entrepreneurs to help them build meaningful businesses from their passions.

What inspired you to start/join Empath?

I was inspired to start Empath because of my own mental health struggles and difficulties with the limited mental health services in the Philippines. It was difficult to navigate due to the numerous gaps in the local mental healthcare system like insufficient awareness, the persistent stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health, limited accessibility, and inadequate affordable facilities and providers. These and a few other issues hinder many other Filipinos like me from seeking help much sooner.

Learning about other people’s mental health struggles ignited my passion and determination to address those issues, which led to pitching the idea for Empath in the 2019 United Nations Global Impact Challenge, a youth mobilization competition that encourages meaningful, socially-responsible, youth-led projects. Becoming a finalist in the competition reinforced my commitment to fully incorporate Empath into a social enterprise that envisions mental healthcare access for all Filipinos.

We soon began offering online services like psychotherapy, wellness, and other psychoeducational services in the middle of the pandemic in 2020. Our thriving team, composed of over 20 mental health professionals, are helping enable and empower more and more Filipino communities to become advocates for their own and each other's mental health and wellbeing.

Through Empath, we hope to continue serving more individuals, educational institutions, enterprises, and non-profit organizations in helping them flourish mentally into the best version of themselves.

Over the years, mental health has become more and more a priority. How have you noticed these changes here in the Philippines?

There are many barriers that our country still has to address when it comes to mental health such as the stigma and discrimination surrounding it, fragmented mental health systems, lack of awareness caused by inadequate information on mental health services, lack of affordable facilities and providers, and an overall insufficiency of mental health services and qualified personnel.

Despite these gaps within our healthcare system, mental health has become a growing concern for Filipinos for the past few years,  which has led to increased attention and focus from the government and the public and in 2018, the Philippine Mental Health Act was passed. This law affirms the basic right of all Filipinos to mental health as well as the fundamental rights of people who require mental health services. Prior to this, our country was one of the few countries globally without any existing mental health legislation.

With the pivotal changes brought about by this law, we have seen an increased interest and awareness from organizations and schools to provide access to quality mental healthcare and implement programs and policies that address the mental health concerns of their constituents. The uncertainty and limited mobility of the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic also impacted the mental health state of people globally, which has also led many Filipinos to learn more about how to address their mental health issues and seek professional help.

I expect that this awareness will continue to increase and lead to higher demand for quality mental health services in the Philippines. Empath will continue to work with individuals, organizations, workplaces and schools to ensure that mental healthcare and education are readily accessible.

What are some of the most common concerns you’ve helped address when it comes to working professionals?

Prior to the pandemic, the most common concerns for working professionals in the Philippines involved adjustment issues possible due to starting  a new job, working in a new environment, or gaining heavier responsibilities due to a career advancement. Commonly, working professionals also dealt with financial concerns, especially when they have their families or household to support.

However, when the pandemic came, a lot of issues transformed  from the typical workplace adjustment issues  to pretty much adjusting with work from home, dealing with everyday living due to job insecurity, and an added factor would be stress brought by family and close friends being affected by COVID 19. Depression also came as a lingering, long-term, effect that is still common among working professionals.

How can companies cultivate an environment where creativity can flourish?I think the culture of “fail fast, learn fast” can help employees build on activities that entails creative thinking. With the other way around, if people are not given opportunities to learn through failure, employees would tend to just stick with how things are done (status quo) without thinking about ways to improve.

“Fail fast, learn fast” gives so much leeway within organizations to be agile with their work, with everyone helping each other and gives suggestions on how to do it better.

If you could provide 3 mental health tools that companies can use to help take care of employee well-being, what would they be?

Definitely, an employee assistance tool that makes it easy for employees to reach out to for their (1) mental, (2) work-related, and even (3) financial concerns. For 1, the availability of mental health services like counseling and psychiatric consultations. For 2, a tool to raise concerns about work without the fear of retaliation. And for 3, a tool for employee loans and programs to sustain everyday expenses while paying for the loan.

What does it mean to be not only mentally healthy, but to be well? Are there measures we can look at to check in with ourselves and how we’re doing?

Mental health has been defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. This definition encapsulates what it means to be holistically “well”.

The WHO has a Five Well-Being Index (WHO-5), which is a short, self-reported questionnaire with five items to measure current mental wellbeing. What’s good about this tool is that it keeps you aware about your current well-being, and can be measured fast over a period of time. Some questions in it would be, “I have felt calm and relaxed.” and “My daily life has been filled with things that interest me.”

Being mentally well is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities. According to the WHO, mental health is an integral part of overall health and is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life. Thus, it is crucially important to promote, protect and restore the mental well being of individuals, communities and societies globally.

“In Empath, we strive to help foster the flourishing of mental healthcare in our country where all are able to receive the quality mental healthcare we deserve.”

We will continue to work with the government, academic institutions, and different organizations to enable and empower Filipinos to become advocates for their own and each other's mental health and wellbeing through counseling, wellness, and psychosocial educational services.