Filipino youth reeling from pandemic unemployment, mental health woes

Photo by Rainier Ridao

The global health crisis has derailed countless plans and dreams. Jane Magsanay, 27, knew this all too well because she had hoped 2020 would be the year she made a career shift.

The decision came after Magsanay was rushed to the emergency room for extreme menstrual discomfort. She was diagnosed with adenomyosis– a condition where the muscular wall of the uterus swells.

She had to file for sick days every month as her ailment would leave her incapacitated during her red days, and she had to go for quarterly medical treatment. 

A night shift worker for six years, Magsanay was also diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a digestive problem common among employees with rotating shifts and long work hours. GERD is a long-term condition where acid from the stomach comes up into the esophagus.

Magsanay attributed her worsening health with the stress that comes with her work at a business process outsourcing (BPO) company. She resigned from work in early March, intent on taking a two-week-long furlough before hunting for a job that wouldn’t require shift work.

Left: Photo by Anh Nguyen

But by the time Magsanay was ready to join the labor force again, the number of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases had rapidly increased in the Philippines, forcing the government to lock down cities and municipalities to stem the spread of the virus. 

The economic impact of quarantine measures drove many businesses to shut down, cut costs, and lay off their employees. This put younger workers at a disadvantage, as practical wisdom would dictate that short-tenured employees were always the first to go.

As well, many graduates fresh from senior high school and college have not had enough chance to conduct their job search. Amid a state of public health emergency, there were less opportunities for career placements.

In April, at the height of strict lockdown protocols, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) recorded a 17.7-percent unemployment rate, equivalent to 7.3 million jobless Filipinos — the highest on record, since 1987.

This figure slipped to 10 percent in July, or an equivalent of 4.6 million Filipinos, as community quarantine rules were gradually relaxed, which allowed more people to return to work. Of this data, the younger age brackets of 15-24 and 25-34 claimed the highest share of unemployment (68.8 percent).

But despite the government’s efforts to recover from the economic recession, many Filipinos still found themselves reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After several months of job-hunting, 25-year-old Ernesto Quismorio had given up looking for a full-time employment. 

Quismorio previously worked as a laboratory technician in a college in Makati City. But with new standards of protocols in place to prevent the transmission of the virus, which include restrictions in physical interaction and a work-from-home online set-up, he found himself grappling with job loss and frantically sending applications to companies and industries that were hit by a financial crisis and were already operating at a limited capacity themselves.

“May savings naman ako, so okay pa ako nung simula. I was hopeful, actually, kasi sa background ko, pwede akong mag-apply sa mga nabubuo pa lang na industry. For example, COVID-19 rapid testing centers saka sa mga lab. Pero naka-ilang interview na ako, walang nagma-materialize,” he said. 

(“I had some savings so I could keep myself afloat for the first few months of the lockdown. I was actually hopeful because, with my background, I could apply for work in newer industries, such as COVID-19 rapid testing centers and laboratories. But I’ve done several interviews and not one has materialized.”)

Most hiring personnel were looking for applicants with years of experience, said Quismorio, which puts him and many other young jobseekers at a disadvantage. Now, not only do they find themselves vying against one another in a competitive market exacerbated by the pandemic, but they also have to contend with more experienced applicants who are willing to take on jobs that pay less than their previous posts.

In addition to the strain of unemployment, the “new normal” also weighed heavily on Quismorio, as worries began to pile up.

The former laboratory technician said he had always been active in sports and would’ve joined the Ultimate Frisbee games had it not been cancelled due to the pandemic. The sudden transition to a sedentary lifestyle, stuck the entire day in a dormitory shared with friends, took a toll on his mental health.

“Ekis lahat ng plano, so itutulog ko na lang. Bumabangon lang ako para kumain,” he said.

(“All my plans were cancelled so I would sleep through most days. I only get up to eat.”)

And with his savings depleted the longer the pandemic and his unemployment drew, Quismorio said the worse his thoughts became. 

“Minsan may loss of appetite kasi iisipin ko ‘yung budget ko. Takot din akong lumabas para maghanap ng trabaho kasi paano pag na-ospital ako. Gastos na naman ‘yun. E ayoko naman umuwi sa parents ko kasi senior na sila, baka ma-expose sila,” he said.

(“I sometimes struggle with a loss of appetite because I can’t help but think about my expenses. Going outside to apply for jobs also scared me. What if I end up in the hospital? That will cost me. I didn’t want to stay with my parents because they’re both senior citizens. What if they get exposed (to COVID-19 because of me)?”)

Like Quismorio, the former night-shift worker Magsanay found herself reeling in anxiety. 

In their cramped rented home in Pasay City, Magsanay once overheard her parents arguing about the family’s dwindling finances and blaming her unemployment for it. Magsanay’s father, who has worked in an international cruise line for two decades, had been repatriated, while her mother is a housewife.

She is the eldest in a brood of four.

Among her siblings: One only receives a daily allowance from work that amounts to less than half of the minimum wage in Metro Manila, another is a fresh graduate who still couldn’t land a job, and the youngest is a college freshman.

“Ubos na talaga ang savings namin. Lalo kasi marami akong gastos sa ospital ko bago pa itong pandemic,” she said, referring to her regular checks-up and treatment.

(“Our savings have run dry, especially because I had used most of them up before the pandemic for my medical expenses.”)

Now, Magsanay said she would sleep for only three hours at night, experience palpitations despite inactivity, and have recurring thoughts of self-doubt and suicidal ideation. All these are symptoms of anxiety. 

Experts have stated that stress and anxiety are normal psychological reactions to the global health crisis. Physical distancing, a strongly encouraged measure to prevent the transmission of the virus and the disease, tend to make people feel isolated and lonely. A heightened sense of uncertainty over health, finances, employment, and relationships also add to mental and emotional distress.

At least 3.6 million Filipinos are suffering from some kind of mental, neurological, or substance use disorders, according to a Department of Health (DOH) survey. The health agency admitted, however, that the figure could be higher as it only covered three “selected conditions.”

The National Center for Mental Health (NCMH)’s crisis hotline has also been receiving an “alarming” surge of calls with a daily average of 32 to 37 and a monthly average of 907 from March to October, DOH National Mental Health Program head Frances Prescila Cuevas said in a press briefing last month. Among the monthly calls, 53 are suicide-related. 

Compared to data from last year, the daily and monthly averages calls showed a “very noticeable” increase of 50 percent, Cuevas said. 

In an earlier press release, the health agency said that the “most vulnerable population is those aged 15-29. Mental health-related deaths are also the second leading cause of fatalities in this age group.”

“These numbers illustrate the need for more conversations and programs that will break the stigma around mental health. Most times, Filipinos do not feel comfortable sharing their mental health challenges for fear of alienation or prejudice,” it added.

Aware that she needed professional advice, Magsanay said she consulted a doctor regarding her palpitations. After a series of tests, her cardiologist said what she was experiencing was likely caused by anxiety and panic disorders.

But, at the moment, consulting a mental health professional was far from Magsanay’s mind. 

“Ang sabi sa akin ng doktor, pumunta raw ako sa psychologist kasi nga panic attacks daw iyon. Pero di na ako pumunta kasi ang daming iniisip. Dagdag pa sa gastos, e hindi naman covered ng health insurance iyon,” she said. 

(“The doctor referred me to a psychologist because he said I was having panic attacks. But I chose not to go because we already have a lot on our plate right now. Therapy will mean additional expenses, one we cannot afford because it’s not covered by my health insurance.”)

Acknowledging the need for psychological intervention in these trying times, many psychologists turned to adjusting from in-person sessions to telepsychology services. Organizations, such as the Philippine Mental Health Association, Inc., also offer free webinars on stress management and other mental health issues. 

The Natasha Goulbourn Foundation, likewise, keeps its crisis hotlines open 24/7.

At present, Quismorio had used his remaining savings to start an online coffee business, MULAT Coffee (, with his friends. He also taught himself graphic design and social media management, which were not in line with his practice, seeing that it gave him freelance opportunities. 

Magsanay, meanwhile, continues her job search through websites like Sikap.PH, an initiative launched in September by the Office of the Vice President in partnership with the private sector.

Employees displaced by the pandemic, including household helpers and overseas workers, could also avail of cash benefits from the Social Security System (SSS). Application can be done through the SSS website.

SSS also implemented a subsidy program to help small businesses that stopped their operations during the lockdown pay the wages of their workers.

Meanwhile, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) continues to offer skills training programs online.

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