I have no qualms in admitting that I suffer from mental illness. Mainly depression and anxiety.
I speak publicly about my mental health problems because it is estimated that only a meagre 40 per cent of patients with depression seek adequate medical treatment. The others, an overwhelming 60 per cent of patients with depression, for various reasons remain without adequate treatment.
Treatment for depression is available and is provided free of charge from the POYC. With this in mind, it is shocking that untreated depression remains the main cause of suicide.
And let us not be fooled. Suicide is on the increase worldwide, including Malta. Until a few years ago, one person used to take his own life every 40 seconds, meaning the number of successful suicides totalled one million globally per year.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation was already sounding its alarm bells of a mental-health illness pandemic with suicide projected to reach a staggering figure of one suicide every 20 seconds and two million suicides globally each year. It is a fact that the pandemic has made things much and much worse.
Because I suffer from mental health problems, I know how it feels waking up in the morning terrified of the day ahead. Getting out of bed is a struggle, let alone completing the daily chores. Treatment helps and so do coping mechanisms which you learn as you go along. But I fully understand and empathise with patients suffering from mental health illness. Life for them is a daily struggle.
People, even those close to them are many times oblivious to the suffering of their loved ones. These patients have no visible ailment, no blood, no fractures, no dressings and no bandages to nurse. Instead of compassion, it is not unusual for these patients to become victims of the plague of stigma by being called lazy, drama queens or crazy. From personal experience, it hurts. It sure does.
My scope for writing this piece was triggered by the recent deceitful manoeuvres of the health authorities in the mental health service. I always do my best not to politicise mental health illness and many times, I personally offered my help to the minister of health. An offer which was always declined. Yet this time round, I can no longer mince my words.
During the COIVID-19 contingency plan, Sir Paul Boffa Hospital, rightly so, had to be taken for COVID patients. This meant that the dermatology department which was housed in Boffa Hospital lost its place.
Fair enough, COVID is an exceptional emergency which required exceptional measures.
But some bright genius from the health department, with no feelings whatsoever for mental health clients, came up with a devious and most disgusting plan: close the psychiatric outpatients at Mater Dei and instead converge the dermatology outpatients in the psychiatric outpatients.
So the problem for the dermatology department is solved. But what about psychiatric outpatients?
With a heavy heart as a mental health patient, I am sick and tired of well-written mental health strategies which are shelved and rendered useless and serve only to collect dust
Allow me to take you back in time when I was parliamentary secretary for health. I started slowly but gradually disseminating mental health services in the community by opening five mental health centres in the community and a couple of day centres for mental health clients. Each clinic had its own catchment areas based on geographic considerations, size and professional capacity of each clinic.
This time round, the government in no time found a quick fix solution to substitute the psychiatric outpatients. They did not increase one single mental health clinic or mental day centre in seven years in office. Instead, they rearranged the catchment areas in Malta to ensure that every locality falls under one of the five mental health clinics. They went far to boast that this is being done in line with the mental health strategy where the way forward is to disseminate mental healthcare in the community. But indeed, the devil is in the detail.
The present mental health clinics do not have the space nor the professional manpower to cater for the sudden increase of patients which, in some instances, increased by thousands.
In nearly all clinics, patients cannot enjoy privacy with their psychiatrist, psychologist or mental health nurse. Mental health consultations by nature are very intimate and personal. The few nurses who previously worked in the psychiatric outpatients and who were deployed to these clinics are a far cry from the real staffing numbers required.
As we speak, I am informed that two psychiatrists, who seem they have nothing more useful to do, are touring Malta to try to find alternative adequate space for this overwhelming increase of psychiatric patients in the community.
I have also been informed that some patients had their monthly DEPOT injection (a slow-release antipsychotic drug) postponed or delayed.
Due to this rushed, ill-planned and haphazard arrangement, patients who cannot seek private care stand to lose. Their time with their healthcare professionals decreased considerably. As we speak, their medical files are still somewhere in Mater Dei collecting dust while they are being treated in some distant part of Malta.
For the last seven years, this government has been promising a state-of-the-art mental health hospital in the footprint of Mater Dei. Rather than living up to its promise, it has incredibly managed to kick the long-standing psychiatric outpatients out of Mater Dei.
With a heavy heart as a mental health patient, I am sick and tired of well-written mental health strategies which are shelved and rendered useless and serve only to collect dust. As a mental health patient, I feel insulted, angered and hurt for constantly being taken for a ride by this government. As mental health patients, all we got from this government was an overdose of lip service and a second-hand cheap Cinderella rag doll.
Mario Galea is an MP and the PN spokesperson for mental health
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