Q&A: Miss International 2016 Kylie Verzosa on fighting for better mental health awareness

From left to right: Dr. Gundo Aurel Weiler, WHO country representative in the Philippines; Kylie Verzosa, Miss International 2016 titleholder; Dr. Paulyn Rosell-Ubial, Philippines Department of Health Secretary; Dr. Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for Western Pacific; Dr. Susan Mercado, director for NCDs and Health through the Life-Course for WHO's Western Pacific region during World Health Day at the WHO regional office for the Western Pacific in Manila, Philippines. Photo by: Jenny Lei Ravelo / Devex

Before she won the crown for Miss International 2016, Kylie Verzosa was fighting a different battle. She was diagnosed in 2014 as clinically depressed.

“Mental health is very close to my heart,” the teacher/model turned beauty queen told diplomats, World Health Organization staff and members of the media during her speech on World Health Day on April 7, at the WHO’s Western Pacific office in Manila.

“I was feeling feelings of guilt, helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness. I was alive but I was dead inside. I woke up every day thinking why was I still here? I separated myself from my friends, and I was indecisive about the simplest things. I punished myself every day by thinking negative thoughts all day, and I lived in fear,” she shared.

With a strong support system and access to sound medical advice, matched with a change in diet and lifestyle, Verzosa was able to manage her depression. She is now using her voice and international reach as Miss International to raise awareness about mental health. Her long-term goal: Set up a foundation that could help individuals access affordable and holistic mental health care in several centers across the Philippines, her home country.

Devex caught up with Verzosa to talk about her vision for her foundation, and what prompted her to set it up. Her comments have been edited for clarity and length.

You said you wanted to build your own foundation focused on mental health. What’s your vision for that foundation?

I’ve always wanted a safe space for young people to hang out, or a safe space for them to be open and share stories. I want the foundation to also provide more information about depression.

What steps have you taken so far in setting up your own foundation?

I’ve taken the first steps. I created an online platform called Mental Health Matters. It’s a group that writes information about depression. It’s for people who have depression.

We created a separate group for people who actually have the sickness so that they can share. It’s a safe space for them to share their problems and for people who don’t have depression to help a person in need.

So hopefully this starts from here, and then after my reign or even during, I can start the foundation itself.

What made you decide to set up your own foundation? Did you experience difficulties in finding such “open spaces?”

Yes. There were not many people talking about depression and mental health when I had depression. So I always felt weird. I always felt different. Parang ano bang nangyayari sakin [It’s like, what’s going on with me?], and there was nothing much online or there’s no one talking about it.

So, hopefully, now that this is out, people are more aware that it’s OK to talk about [depression], that if you have it, it’s OK, it’s treatable.

There were some articles that have helped me go through my own depression, and it really helped. Education is key for this sickness. I really had to educate myself, and I was also inspired by my dad’s support group. This is where he vented, because you really need to vent your feelings or else they will just get all bottled up, and that’s also where depression starts. So we need a space to vent or release one’s thoughts.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.