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Mental health care is no laughing matter

Unless government invests heavily in mental health care and politicians stop using Mount Carmel Hospital as some kind of guinea pig, people suffering from mental illness will remain on the edge of a very deep precipice

The infamous carnival van is probably in a better condition than Mount Carmel Hospital

Photos of an old battered van with “Mount Carmel Taxi” and “Crazy sick people” scrawled all over it has caused a huge public uproar, with people unsurprisingly describing it as “disgusting” and “unacceptable.”

While many are overlooking the fact that this was the Nadur Carnival, a space and time which celebrates hedonism and freedom of expression – the reactions are not in the least surprising. But I would rather direct the outrage at the state of mental health care.

In truth, the van which has drawn the ire of many is probably in a better condition than Mount Carmel Hospital. In November The Times reported that the roofs of several wards in the 150-year-old hospital were in danger of collapse which saw mental health patients temporarily moved to old people’s homes.

In a country which boasts of impressive economic figures and aspires to be ‘the world’s envy’ the lack of investment in mental healthcare should be anathema.

But it’s not. Investment is inexistent and Mount Carmel Hospital remains an electoral tool. In January, banker and Labour mayor Stephen Sultana was appointed CEO of Mount Carmel Hospital. Very few outside the sector complained. But fears on Sultana’s lack of expertise in the field expressed by health professionals have unfortunately been proven true.

In a matter of weeks, two patients escaped from the hospital. In one case, a suicidal patient was found dead after escaping the institution through a bathroom window.

The young man was later found dead at a Bugibba hotel. The teenage patient died two days after seeking help at Mount Carmel Hospital. The Times reported that the patient was suicidal when he was admitted and the doctors ordered constant surveillance due to the acute symptoms he was showing.

“However, due to huge staff shortages, ensuring a constant watch is not always possible,” they said.

The problems did not start now. Mount Carmel Hospital has been in neglect, for years, including under Nationalist administrations.

Before these latest episodes, Mental Health Commissioner John Cachia warned that “staff dedication, respect and dignity for patients cannot be expected to make up for a lack of investment in the physical environment of care facilities” at Mount Carmel Hospital.

Not only is the institution used to punish or demote nurses and health care professionals but when election time comes many nurses understandably demand to be transferred out of Mount Carmel Hospital and many politicians oblige.

This leaves the institution in a worse situation as the transferred nurses are not replaced. The only victims of this dire situation are the patients, the very ones who people are ferociously defending in the Nadur carnival fallout.

But beyond all the truisms, mental health care remains one of the biggest unmet needs in Malta.

Mental illness strikes without regard for ethnicity, age, sex and economic class. As a society, we are often misinformed and view mental health issues with disdain, discomfort, or fear. Often people suffering from mental health disorders are ridiculed and left to their own devices.

Nowadays, money talks louder than it ever did. Although mental health care remains very low on the country’s priorities, the cost of untreated mental illness is costing the country millions. Various studies carried out in the US show that the cost of untreated mental illness runs into hundreds of billions in emergency health care and lost productivity.

Unless government invests heavily in mental health care and politicians stop using Mount Carmel Hospital as some kind of guinea pig, people suffering from mental illness will remain on the edge of a very deep precipice. In mental health does become a political priority, not only will the economy benefit from increased productivity but beyond fickle economic arguments our family members, friends and neighbours will be given a chance to become healthier and happier.

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