The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our mental health.

The unforeseen turn of events with the quarantine, isolation, and uncertainty, have made experts concerned about the possible harm on everyone’s well-being. Many anticipate cases of anxiety and depression to rise.

The University Student Services Office (USSO) worried about how they could offer the much needed psycho-social support to students from miles away.

“When the idea of quarantine or lockdown was being considered by our government officials, my initial reaction was where do I put myself, how do I position myself in a manner that I could be of help?” VSU’s Guidance Counselor Marwen Castañeda said.

Sangguniang Kabataan Federation President of Baybay Mark Michael Unlu-cay had the same thought.

After leading the production of alternative protective equipment for local frontliners, as well as lobbying for a policy for easier access of funds for the relief goods, Unlu-cay knew that there were struggles during the pandemic that were well beyond material and food security.

“I was thinking about creating a program for psycho-social support intervention because, personally, even I received concerns pertaining to mental health. Even prior to the strike of COVID, there had already been discussion on this,” Unlu-cay explained.

It eventually progressed into a partnership with VSU’s USSO, DYDC, and Baybay City’s SK Federation in the form of “Serbisyo Kabataan Online”, a live program on social media....

“I talked with Dean Loreto, my fellow counselors and to Sir Derek Alviola and Sir Jed Cortes about a possibility of coming up with an online program for kumustahan,” Mrs. Castaneda explained how they came up with the program.

“Then one evening, I chatted with Konsehal Mark Unlu-cay. After the usual kumustahan, he shared with me about the City of Baybay's initiative in responding to the issue of depression. So, I asked him if VSU and LGU Baybay can collaborate with an online program that would be an intervention response. He was very enthusiastic and offered to connect with Sir Derek, and the rest is history,” she enthused.

For Mr. Unlu-cay, the partnership was a no-brainer.

“I looked into who we could partner with and what we could do but seeing this university - the kind of technology (they produce), the kind of system we have here, and as a product of this university as well, I am already confident that we could come up with such media platform,” he explained.

Mrs. Castaneda and Mr. Unlu-cay themselves, with Prof. Manolo B. Loreto, spearheaded the discussion, each bringing distinct advocacy to the program.

The online tele-counselling program airs every other week from June until August, with the aim of connecting to everyone who may need it. It is now in its fourth episode.

“We are not limiting the stretch of this initiative and we are giving our viewers the assurance that this program is for everyone who is interested, whoever and wherever they are,” Mrs. Castaneda explained.

In fact, a day after the first episode aired, a student from Cebu City reached out to Mrs. Castaneda.

“Very early the following morning of our first webisode, a student chatted me in my messenger. This student desperately needed someone to talk to and was very thankful to have watched our program,” Mrs. Castaneda recalled.

“This is not our student but the fact that this student reached out and needed help, I accommodated and went on to giving counseling through chat. This is what I had said earlier about this program not being selective,” she said.

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Besides offering psycho-social support in the form of plenary discussions, the program was able to develop an advocacy of its own: #NiKoPaNi, an abbreviated term for “Nia ko para nimo (I am here for you).”

The message is simple but effective.

“That has always been the center of our discussions. To make our viewers feel that we are here for them. And that I guess is understandably of utmost importance in this time of COVID, for our presence to be felt even from the distance,” Mrs. Marwen said.

After being aired a month ago, #NiKoPaNi has since been picked up by other persons and institutions.

According to Mrs. Castaneda, a Filipina architect based in Sri Lanka contacted her and asked permission to write a book about it.

The Holy Spirit School of Tagbilaran also adopted the tagline, including the term in letters to parents for their students' enrollment, and was told that it was pitched to songwriter Jude Gitamondoc to translate one of his recent Tagalog song in Cebuano as NiKoPaNi.

The recent Batang Pinoy Bill that is also being passed in the Senate mentioned NiKoPaNi.

With these developments, Mrs. Castaneda hopes the advocacy of the program continues even after it stops airing.

"By the time SKO ends, I am sincerely hoping that it's not just a program that (will end) seemingly like it died a natural death,” she concluded.

VSU students who wish to reach out to USSO for personal psychosocial support can arrange an online meeting with one of VSU guidance counselors by sending a message to the VSU Student Services Office Facebook page.

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