One of the measures by which to judge the progress of civilisation is the way it treats those sectors of its population which can be considered vulnerable. Tales from Mount Carmel mental health hospital about the physical conditions in which some patients are kept have long given a bad account of Maltese society at this stage of its development.

This is not to say that other aspects of treatment of the mentally ill at the hospital are not adequate or even excellent. It is not to doubt the professionalism with which practitioners and healthcare workers at all levels try to approach their task of care for sufferers who are unfortunate enough to need inpatient treatment.

But there is another reason why these patients are unfortunate. It is because some of them are accommodated in conditions that are far from adequate and dignified, let alone modern. The hospital building is a product of the Victorian era. It may be cliched but the word ‘Victorian’ – sometimes used to suggest dreadful living conditions – seems to still be applicable to some of the wards and rooms at the hospital.

Take the latest report that Times of Malta has published. A woman kept in seclusion because she had tested positive for COVID-19 described spending 10 days in a bare room – which she more accurately called a cell – sleeping on a mattress on the floor and with a squat toilet that she could not flush from the inside. She called it ‘hell’.

Her testimony prompted the vice president of the Maltese Association of Psychiatry to write an article in this newspaper speaking of a “decrepit environment” faced by some categories of mental health patients inside the “cold walls” of Mount Carmel.

This was by no means an isolated case. Only a few days earlier, we had reported on a blog post written by another patient who described conditions as being “out of a horror film”, reminiscent of a concentration camp and sure to “drive you mad”.

Following that report, Malta’s mental health commissioner encouraged other patients to speak up about the “far from desirable” conditions at the hospital. He said the blog post was similar to other patients’ views which reflect the findings that his office had been reporting for the past six years.

There is, indeed, broad consensus about the urgent need to upgrade the hospital, parts of which were even condemned as dangerous in the past. Both the association of psychiatrists and the Richmond Foundation, the NGO that supports people with mental health problems, have called the place unfit for purpose. The former CEO of Mount Carmel, in testimony to a parliamentary committee, had spoken of the hospital’s “dire conditions” and “disastrous state”.

The government has promised a new, state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital next to Mater Dei Hospital by 2025 but appears not to have taken up calls for a badly needed temporary facility until that is built. Perhaps after splashing out taxpayer millions on its disastrous foray into privatising three other hospitals, it has no money left to cater for mental health patients.

The stories that keep emerging, the condemnation from experts in the field and the genuine pleas of patients for better conditions demonstrate gross neglect by the authorities over the years.

Ultimately, politicians tend to give their attention to areas where the electorate focuses on. Societal norms, values, priorities and expectations all influence where that focus happens to be. It is a sad reflection of society’s values and priorities that there has not been enough attention paid to making sure mental health patients are treated with more dignity and respect.

The conditions at Mount Carmel are shameful and should not be tolerated in a society that professes to be civilised.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us