The impact of isolation and helplessness brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for years to come, John Cachia has warned, as he hands the baton to a new mental health commissioner.

The government announced last week that Dennis Vella Baldacchino, who currently serves as chief medical officer, will be replacing Cachia, who was appointed as Malta’s first Commissioner for Mental Health in 2011.

Health Minister Chris Fearne thanked incumbent Cachia for the “brilliant job” he had done over the past decade. Cachia’s last 18 months as commissioner have been dominated by the biggest pandemic in a century.

He told Times of Malta the pandemic has been a significant eye-opener for many people who, for the first time in their lives, experienced the reality of stress, anxiety, solitude, fear, depression, and emotional instability.

Everyone – from children to the elderly, the poor, business people, migrants and those suffering serious illnesses – have been impacted.

“Many have missed out on learning and socialising opportunities. Isolation and helplessness have had, and will have, their toll for many years to come.

Many have missed out on learning, socialising

“The number of people seeking mental health services is on the increase. The pandemic has widened the gap between demand for care and the ability to provide it through existing services. More investment in human resources and facilities is required to deal with the pandemic’s detrimental effects on mental health,” he said.

Looking back at the past 10 years, Cachia believes that mental health and well-being have been “firmly” put on the country’s agenda.

“Awareness has increased exponentially. Mental health services today operate within a framework that places the rights of people with mental disorders at the heart of the care process.

“Service orientation has moved from one with a legalistic approach, to a more humane one that emphasises early intervention, recovery, rehabilitation, and community-based services.”

He noted that his office’s extensive data and documentation has helped shape mental health agenda and contributed significantly to the national strategy, “whose implementation is perhaps the biggest and most important challenge for mental health and wellbeing”.

Other pressing challenges include parity of esteem between mental and physical care in hospitals and health centres, the recognition of invisible disabilities linked to mental disorders and the fight against stigma and discrimination.

“No one deserves to face mental health challenges alone. Opening up to and interacting with a trusted family member, a professional or a friend is critical,” he said, adding that seeking support should be empowering, not shameful.

“Although reaching out for help is a personal decision, people need to feel empowered to speak up and express their feelings without the fear of being stigmatised and discriminated.”  

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