How professionals from an international fellowship program teamed up to address a youth suicide spike in the Philippines

When COVID-19 ravaged the Philippines in early 2020, the rate of youth suicide took an alarming turn for the worse. Many young Filipinos were struggling to cope and access to mental health support was scarce, especially in rural communities. It was clear intervention was desperately needed.
The spike in youth suicide sparked serious concern among a group of Fellows from The Equity Initiative, an Atlantic Fellows fellowship program, where leaders contribute their expertise to improving health equity. Fueled by the desire to help, this band of professionals – from backgrounds as diverse as academia and the civil service – teamed up to reverse the tide of life-threatening mental illness.
However, the Fellows faced an enormous challenge. How could they engage enough stakeholders to create awareness and deliver mental health support to vulnerable youth across the country, particularly in remote areas? And how would they do so during a pandemic, with its lockdowns and countless restrictions?
On top of this, there was no guarantee that such an informal group of diverse practitioners would work well together.
“We began by establishing working committees to identify where the gaps were in mental health support,” says Senior Fellow, Abelardo Apollo I. David, Jr. – also known as Archie. “We then had to build a coalition of stakeholders across different levels of government, civil society, NGOs, and private organizations. And we needed a strategy that would make a big impact via local government.”

Drawing in the stakeholders
Engaging so many stakeholders was the most daunting task facing Archie and his team. Decision-makers were preoccupied with the immediate fallout from the pandemic, yet the rise in youth suicide was an urgent concern that demanded their attention. In these challenging circumstances, the Fellows had to deploy their people skills, honed during the fellowship program and through the team’s bonding activities.
The most successful approach, they thought, would be to leverage their collective networks and engage people via the League of Municipalities of the Philippines; an organization that represents 68 municipalities across the country.
Firstly, local governments had to acknowledge the suicide problem and the social stigma around mental health. The team would then create strategic alliances to ensure each municipality had enough information and resources to address the issue.
“We had to draft a compelling letter to engage the key decision-makers,” says Archie. “That letter had to include evidence and data, as well as establish our credibility. From that point, we started to build relationships with people by inviting them to online meetings to discuss ideas and provide feedback. The meetings had to be very well organized, so we included ice breakers and social activities to make it more engaging.”
It took a few months to build the coalition of stakeholders, but the strategy worked. Ironically, the pandemic made it easier to get people together online, as it was now the preferred medium for interaction.
Nonetheless, the team had to persevere. Busy people were slow to respond, so they had to constantly follow up texts and emails to stress the importance of the issue and get things moving. Other obstacles threatened to derail the project. At one point, a key advocate had to deal with the aftermath of a typhoon that struck his municipality.

Resolved with a resolution
Eventually, a resolution was passed, decreeing that each municipality be given access to information and resources to tackle youth suicide, including access to services provided by the stakeholders’ coalition.
Local governments now have the legal muscle to implement those actions. It will take time to see real-world results, but Archie and his team hope to see a dramatic downturn in suicide attempts.
So, what was the ‘secret sauce’ that made all this happen so quickly?
“We fostered strong working relationships between all those who took part,” says Archie. “I took satisfaction from seeing everybody enjoy working together and how everyone just clicked. Importantly, we respect each other as equals and share a lot of empathy for the people we are trying to help. And that helps motivate everybody.”
The Equity Initiative emphasizes the importance of good relationships among its Fellows, in the hope that such strong bonds encourage collective efforts outside the program to enhance health equity through shared goals. This project was one successful example.
Another ingredient was the sheer size of the network generated by being part of the Equity Initiative. “As senior Fellows, we have access to grants and resources that we might struggle to get otherwise,” says Archie.
All the networking and meetings, along with growing friendships, have established an invaluable network of people who collaborate to improve the lives of people in need. When another urgent issue arises, that network is ready to help.
A testament to working together for the common good, against the odds.
The Equity Initiative – a program under the China Medical Board and a member of the Atlantic Fellows network – is on the lookout for its next intake of Fellows. If you are a resident citizen from Southeast Asia or China with an interest in health equity and leadership, you can find out more and apply here. (LINK).