Some 100 patients will be relocated from Mount Carmel to other psychiatric homes and services in the community within the next few weeks, Health Minister Jo Etienne Abela said on Monday.

The move is the first in a three-part plan to phase out and close down Mount Carmel as a mental health hospital within the next four years, in what is expected to be one of the boldest and most significant moves in Malta's modern healthcare.

Abela first announced plans to close the hospital last week.

He told parliament the 19th-century building was not fit for purpose and that every government in history has some blame to shoulder for not investing in the mental health infrastructure, which has led to the current reality.

The often controversial hospital is currently home to around 230 patients. Photo: Chris Sant FournierThe often controversial hospital is currently home to around 230 patients. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

He said that a committee of experts had recommended that mental health services should be provided in the same place where physical health services were provided.

The often controversial hospital periodically makes headlines for housing patients in run-down wards, and former prime minister Joseph Muscat admitted on television a few weeks ago that he regrets never visiting it as prime minister.

Home to around 230 people

The hospital is currently home to around 230 patients.

The first group to move within the next weeks will be people with the mildest and most stable conditions. They will be relocated to other government-run psychiatric services in the community or homes that are licensed for psychiatric use and run by other mental health NGOs.

"That way these people will be a step closer to being reintegrated into the community," Abela said.

By the end of this year, the government plans to activate phase two of the plan, when it reopens Mater Dei's psychiatric unit, which was closed during the pandemic and transformed into a ward for COVID patients.

That ward will host a further 30 patients from Mount Carmel.

Abela turned the country's mental health strategy around since he took over the health ministry in January. Photo: Jonathan BorgAbela turned the country's mental health strategy around since he took over the health ministry in January. Photo: Jonathan Borg

The third and final phase is also the biggest project in modern mental healthcare - the construction of a new, acute psychiatric unit within Mater Dei, which the minister plans to open within four years, subject to planning permits and building timelines.

Plans are already in hand for the unit that would eventually cater for another 128 clients and will be built with the funds previously earmarked for a new, acute psychiatric hospital close to Mater Dei.

Those plans were scrapped weeks after Abela took office earlier this year.

Mental health strategy turned around in six months

In less than six months since he took over the health ministry, he completely turned the country's mental health strategy around.

In March he scrapped plans for the long-promised new mental health hospital, and then again last week he announced he would close down the long-stigmatised Attard hospital.

This is a great step forward in removing once and for all the stigma around Mount Carmel and people with mental health problems, Abela told Times of Malta on Monday.

This way, mental health would truly come to be treated just like any other illness or condition - in hospital, he added.

[attach id="1415361" size="large" align="left" type="image"]Abela first announced plans to close the hospital last week. Photo: Jonathan Borg[/attach]

"Psychiatric care and physical care are already integrated in this way in Gozo, and it's a model that works really well," he said.

Thanks to several government initiatives, the number of patients at Mount Carmel has decreased from 700 to around 230 in the last decade, he added.

The government also plans to transform Mount Carmel into a facility that serves other medical purposes, unrelated to mental health.

Meanwhile, the relocation of social cases and prisoners (forensic cases) at Mount Carmel is yet to be discussed between Abela and the home affairs and social policy ministers.

'Staff to move with clients'

On Monday, Abela also stressed that staff at Mount Carmel will be moving with the clients and there will be no changes to their working conditions.

"The government will guarantee every employee will keep their position, their salary and all working conditions, and there won't be comprises in that regard," Abela said.

"We also don't want people to take the impression that we're going to close the hospital down overnight. It's a cautious process but one that needs to be done."

'Mental health is no priority to government' - PN

In a statement on Monday afternoon, the Nationalist Party said mental health care was not truly a priority to the government.

The statement did not refer to Mount Carmel or its phasing-out process.

The PN said that despite its weeks-long call for "an urgent dialogue" on mental health in the context of the latest number of suicides, the government has not kicked off a discussion on the matter yet.

"While the PN remains proactive in this sector and has put forward several proposals to address the issues long-term, the government continued to ignore the urgency of a meeting and the sensibility of mental health in our country," it said.

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