Over the years, the country’s public healthcare system has shown improvement in the quality of service given to patients. However, in the case of mental health, there are clear signs of a crisis.

Few can deny that mental health problems are increasing in society as the population grows older, migrants face mental health issues as a result of traumatic experiences they went through both back home and during their journey and modern living exerts pressure on the mental well-being of more people. Unfortunately, some of those suffering mental health problems will require inpatient treatment in a specialised hospital.

The latest report carried by this newspaper on the physical state of the only mental health hospital in Malta has opened a can of worms. Mount Carmel Hospital is a Victorian building that received little attention in the form of maintenance and upgrading over the last few decades. At a time when the Prime Minister boasts of the successive budget surpluses achieved in the last few years, many are rightly worried about the widening moral vacuum that is characterising this administration.

Health Minister Chris Fearne downplays the implications of the dangerous state of the building of Mount Carmel Hospital when he says that all patients are safe. Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses president Paul Pace is right when he declares it is unacceptable that the minister seems to measure patients’ safety by whether a ceiling is condemned or not. Packing vulnerable patients like sardines in a few wards that are not in such a bad condition is not the solution to this self-inflicted problem.

The treatment of mental health patients is often a lengthy process and successful outcomes depend on several factors. One of these factors is fighting the taboo of mental illness that prevails in sections of society. Over the last few decades, treatment has shifted away from inpatient care but there will always be instances when patients need specialised hospital attention.

Mental healthcare professionals often find the environment of psychiatric hospitals particularly challenging. The last thing they need to boost their morale is a hospital that is crumbling and putting at risk their own and their patients’ physical safety. The reassurance of the Health Minister that the government has a five-year plan does little to dispel the reasonable conclusion that mental health patients and their carers are considered as second-class citizens in a country that prides itself as being economically successful and has an enviable national health service.

The nurses’ union cannot be blamed for lifting the lid on the simmering pot of problems afflicting Mount Carmel Hospital. The government is wrong in refusing to give the union a copy of the architect’s report drawn up to identify the structural problems of the place. This tactic is the quickest way to break the trust that should exist between employer and employees in such a delicate public health environment.

Mental healthcare issues are challenging for patients and their families. Battles for diagnosis, lengthy waits for treatment, over-reliance on drugs and an abject lack of compassion are some of the problems that afflict this health sector.

It is time the government works with the nurses’ union, with mental health professionals and also with charities and representatives of patients to resolve the crisis at Mount Carmel Hospital.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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