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EXCLUSIVE: By Talking About Mental Struggles and Personal Loss, TJ Manotoc and Shamaine Buencamino Hope To Extend A Hand To Those Silently Battling Depression

Palms sweaty, heart beating fast and mind in shambles—that’s how sportscaster and journalist TJ Manotoc described his moments with anxiety and depression.

TJ was a high school student when he first felt an unfamiliar feeling of confusion and unexplained anger towards the most ordinary things. Coming from a broken family and being the son of high-profile parents, TJ focused all his energy on becoming the best student he could be—but something wasn’t right. The pressure of it all took a toll on his health. He suffered insomnia, anxiety and then depression hit. “It was a challenging journey for the next four or five years,” he recalled. 

 

TJ Manotoc

 

They tried meditation, tai chi, acupuncture—any natural way of healing you can imagine. And while they were no cure, they did help to put him at ease. Until one day, during TJ’s college days when he acted on an extremely reckless decision. Not exactly a drinker, he went to a party with his college mates and had one too many drinks. Where did that leave him after? In his room, awake, a bundle of unexplained energy for three days. Three days without sleep and on a strange high, he felt like he was going crazy. This was when his mother, Aurora Pjiuan, decided he needed help. 

He was admitted into a psych ward. And that was when it hit him. “I realized what was really going on, and that I really have to take full charge of what’s happening.” It took him years to grasp the idea of his condition but eventually acknowledged that something inside him was wrong. He owes a debt of gratitude to Max Ricketts, father of actor Ronnie Rickets, whom he says inspired him to fully accept his condition. Max struggled with the same issues he had, and Aurora thought he would be the perfect person to help her son deal with the challenge.

TJ, although diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, never really thought of taking his own life. There were days when he pondered what his family and friends would say at his funeral but that was that. 

This wasn’t the case for Julia Buencamino, daughter of acclaimed actors Shamaine and Nonie Buencamino.

Julia was 15 when she took matters into her own gentle hands. Three years after her passing, Shamaine, still distraught but hopeful, spoke about what the family went through. 

“The journey has been difficult. I think it is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can have. Survivors of suicide, or loss because of suicide, is a very complicated grief. It has been a journey and it is not over, but talking about it really helps,” she shares.

Earlier on, Shamaine recalls how she and husband Nonie would see cuts and wounds on either Julia’s arms or legs, and she would deny self-mutilation, saying they were just scratches from school activities. They weren't. Shamaine and Nonie didn’t make a big fuss out of it because Julia didn’t show any signs of depression. She was an active kid, doing theater and television work. They made sure there was time for family. Julia had sturdy emotional support, but with her clinical mental condition, that wasn’t enough.

 

Shamaine Buencamino

 

“During the wake of Julia, I woke up and there was this loud voice in my head saying, make it public. I just didn’t know how,” said Shamaine. “I went through her stuff, I wanted to understand what happened to Julia. Because I was reading her journals and researching about her illness, I would write posts on Facebook and people were reacting and some of them were saying, ‘My child also suffers’ and ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’” That’s when the couple realized they needed to create a special project that would advocate awareness on mental health disorders, and why people should talk about it. Hence, the birth of the Julia Buencamino Project.

 

Finding light in a world full of whys

The Buencaminos, Shamaine particularly, got the courage to speak up about their grief a year after Julia’s death through the Julia Buencamino Project. She was invited to schools and universities to give talks to students and parents about the importance of communication and how it can make a huge difference in a child’s development. “You know when you put in your head the idea that anyone is susceptible to mental illness, that’s when you’ll see the signs,” she said. 

On the third anniversary of Julia’s passing, Shamaine and the Buencamino family together with TJ Manotoc worked together on a very special exhibition called #WillYouStillLoveMe. It aims to encourage those in a similar situation to reach out and ask for help, to speak and be heard.

“I would just want to add that this collaboration is also here to ask people to listen and do their part. We are going to use #letstalkletslisten. 

We can’t just all be talking. Someone needs to listen. We are hoping this initiative will bring a community together that is willing to listen, make a stand and together move to make a difference in each other's lives. 

This is why we have so many volunteers. Everyone is doing this pro bono. Everyone we asked help from said YES! We all feel the need to come together and offer a safe space, where they won’t be judged, where they will be accepted, and they will be loved.”

As the poem of Julia said:

 

Everyone is welcome to join the event on July 14, 6PM at Whitespace, Makati to celebrate life and the wonders that come with it, through the stories of individuals who have either gone through the same journey as TJ and Shamaine or knew someone who did. Award-winning director Pepe Diokno also offered his support to the team and has helped spread the word by volunteering to direct their promotional materials.

#WillYouStillLoveMe is a one-day exhibition of experiential art from spoken word to monologues to song and dance numbers to visual art.

The #WillYouStillLoveMe Project is a plea to everyone to face the demons of depression and start speaking up about their battle even when their voice is shaking. 

Take it from TJ who survived this seemingly unending battle with his own mind. “There’s no magic pill. There’s no cure for conditions like this. You have to find a way to take charge and find that balance. It was a very powerful mental decision at that point. I didn’t want to have panic attacks anymore, didn’t want to have bouts of depression anymore. It was a total paradigm shift and I said enough is enough. I want to take control of my life.”

 

If you are (or if someone you know is) thinking about suicide or self-harm, please remember that help is a phone call away. In the Philippines, please call suicide prevention hotline numbers at the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation: 02-804-4673 (HOPE), or 0917-558-4673 (HOPE). You may also call the Manila Lifeline Centre at 02-896-9191, or 0917-854-9191. In the U.S., please call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).