Pushing an advocacy that is relevant and that can help people live better lives is a good idea. What’s even better is when your cause is taken up by celebrities who walk the talk and are open to sharing their own stories, drawing so much more attention to the issue. It doesn’t hurt that the celebrity is one of the most good-looking, acclaimed, and genuinely nice young actors in Philippine cinema—and he even called me “Tita”!
But I’m getting ahead of my story.
Since before the pandemic, I have been working with a dynamic bunch of ladies collectively known as FIAT (Families in Art and Culture Inc.), a group of friends who established a non-stock, non-profit organization in 1995, with a Catholic faith-based focus on women and current issues “that need to be heard, shared, and acted upon when necessary.” In 2019, they invited me to speak in a highly successful series of forums simply called Mental Wellness held in Manila, Cebu, and Davao.
Since I am a diagnosed survivor of bipolar disorder and have written extensively about my experience, I was asked to share my journey alongside grief counselor Cathy Babao, mental health advocate and businesswoman Sheila Suntay, psychiatrist Dr. Bong Buenaventura, and the renowned father of Philippine adolescent psychiatry, Dr. Cornelio Banaag. Later, during the pandemic, I had the privilege of moderating a substantial online discussion on mental health and spirituality featuring Dr. Banaag and Bishop Pablo Virgilio “Ambo” David, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
Last Oct. 14, Saturday, in our first face-to-face event since then, I was again delighted to speak at and help host Mind Chat: Mental Wellness Conversations, held at the Teresa Yuchengco Auditorium at De La Salle University (DLSU) on Taft Avenue, Manila. On the roster were some of the same stellar speakers: Dr B (as we fondly call him) and Sheila, joined by psycho-spiritual advocate and author Fr. Willy Samson, SJ, and writer, artist, and musician Bea Robles, plus a bonus recorded message from Bishop Ambo all the way from the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican. We were also told about a special artista guest who might be dropping by to promote a movie—which, I have to admit, I simply shrugged about, because, well, artista nga.
We went about the forum as we had in the past. Aside from FIAT, the event was also co-sponsored by DLSU and Ayala Healthcare Holdings Inc. (AC Health); DLSU president Bro. Bernard S. Oca, FSC, and AC Health president and CEO Paolo Borromeo gave their welcome remarks, highlighting how big organizations were now very conscious of mental health.
Dr B, as always, blew everyone away with his excellent, accessible information and engaging way with the audience. After all, this University of Philippines professor emeritus and president of the Philippine Mental Health Association has always been generous with his wisdom—including, sad to say, his conviction that young people’s gadgets and their disproportionate obsession with the virtual world have been a leading contributor to adolescent isolation, mental illness, and even suicide, in recent years.
Sheila, a businesswoman, mother of five, and wife to former congressman Atty. Bong Suntay, took up the fight for mental health after the loss of her son Enzo to suicide some years back. In her own words, she has found beauty in the brokenness. Fr. Willy Samson examined the crossroads of mental wellness and spiritual well-being, and offered excellent advice on pursuing a positive mindset in the light of one’s faith. Bea Robles talked about her own journey with anxiety, and how she has used writing and painting—“artwords,” she calls it—as well as music to express herself and cope. She even performed the song Hero on clarinet.
And then, during Bea’s talk, multiple murmurings and instructions from backstage: Alden Richards had arrived and was willing to wait until Bea’s portion was done. We would show a teaser of his new movie, Five Break-ups and a Romance, co-starring Julia Montes, and he would deliver a short message.
After a few minutes, I was told, no, it wouldn’t be a short message; could we ask Alden some questions about mental health for a longer discussion? He wanted to hang around.
I already had a soft-ish spot for the actor because he had graciously appeared in an advocacy campaign for the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), in support of asPins, and this last instruction made me go, “Awwwww.” So Alden was ushered backstage, and I thanked him for the PAWS effort. He was very polite, soft-spoken, and was immediately calling me “Tita,” and peppering his sentences with “po.” The 31-year-old actor has unreal skin, dimples, and the kind of eyes that, like those of actor John Lloyd Cruz, don’t require awful facial contortions to well up with tears and deliver truckloads of emotion. His beige jacket and light-colored jeans and shirt made him look even more immaculate. And the deal-breaker for many girls? Take it from your tita: He smelled nice—not overpowering cologne nice, but clean nice.
Thus, after the trailer—at which point the audience was already suspecting something—my co-host, the ebullient Leon Peckson, joined me on stage to introduce Alden, to ear-piercing shrieks—but yes, the crowd quieted down and listened when they realized the actor was making sense. The conversation was natural, unscripted (aside from the two additional questions flashed on the screen, which Alden didn’t see beforehand), and genuine.
He talked about how, as a celebrity, you cease to be your own person the minute you step out of your house. He talked about cancel culture, and how it took him a while to mature and cease to be affected by the bashing he saw on social media, including insinuations on his gender and how it was once suggested that he dealt in drugs (!). He emphasized the importance of family, and how the fact that his own family was not particularly demonstrative—“We’re not the type to always say ‘I love you,’” he intimated—has also been a source of “heartbreak.” He even spoke about having felt a great deal of anxiety earlier this year, which he dealt with by simply taking better care of himself. Most significantly, he acknowledged how being a celebrity gave him “a platform to do good” (his words), and how he wanted to be part of discussing issues like mental health.
A parting shot from Alden, after being asked how a young person can maintain his or her own peace of mind when wanting so much to be “in”: “Go back to your core,” he said. “Don’t let your happiness depend only on family, your boyfriend or girlfriend, or your friends. You have to depend on yourself.”
Finally, we decided to pose for a photo with the auditorium behind us. To my chagrin, the photographer asked us to kneel in the foreground; since I was in a dress, I worried about flashing either Alden (horrors) or the audience. “Let me help you, Tita,” he said, holding my hand until I could safely kneel. The best part was getting up; this time, I needed both of Alden’s hands to hang on to—and I’m no waif, mind you—but the fellow never wavered. More “Aaawwwwww.”
As a parting shot, I thanked our guest artista, promised I’d watch the movie (I’ve already vowed to take my househelp Dang to the nearby movie theater), and thanked him again for taking the issue to heart. “Please don’t change!” Tita begged.
Bishop Ambo still managed to get his recorded message across despite coming after our surprise guest, a testament to the bishop’s own gift of communication. But we ran out of time for our all-important open forum, so we gathered the questions and recorded the open forum online after the event.
After I posted about the experience on Facebook, Mads Nicolas, my actress friend, confirmed my impression, as she had a cameo role in Four Break-Ups and A Romance. “I had such a good experience with him, mabait talaga siya,” Mads posted.
So, as showbiz wags say, confirmed po: Alden Richards is good for your mental health because his wonderful attitude and sheer pogi-ness can certainly make your day. Tita has spoken.