Watch: Mental health remains at the ‘bottom of the heap’ – Commissioner

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

While changing attitudes have helped overcome the stigma in a number of areas, mental health remains at the “bottom of the heap,” according to Commissioner for Mental Health John Cachia.

Cachia was being interviewed by Andrew Azzopardi on 103 Malta’s heart, with the presenter questioning whether mental health was still the “Cinderella” when it came to social issues. But while the commissioner acknowledged that this was the case, he nevertheless emphasised that things were moving forward, even though a lot still needed to be done.

He highlighted that similarly, people with disabilities were once kept hidden in their families’ homes before Mgr Mikiel Azzopardi opened the Dar tal-Providenza, and that even cancer was once discussed in hushed tones in the past.

Azzopardi argued that signs of progress alone provided little comfort, but Cachia replied that the issue was that mental health issues have been deeply rooted within any society for millennia. It was not enough to change political attitudes: society itself needed to be transformed, and that inevitably took time.

More needs to be done with available resources

Cachia emphasised the need to strengthen leadership across the board, stating that all involved needed to strongly believe that much more could be done with the existing resources available.

He said that it was useless to draw up well-written strategy documents if there was no leadership – whether political, administrative, financial or professional – to bring them to fruition.

The year of the pandemic

Asked what his office’s main achievements were in 2020, Cachia focused on its reaction to the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He highlighted that in the early stages, when the first cases started to be reported, his office strongly argued that the impact on people’s mental health needed to be considered in the national response to the pandemic. The office had initially been a lone voice in the wilderness, but the importance of this was now universally recognised, Cachia added.

But while the arrival of the pandemic would have contributed to mental health issues, initially it led to a drop in people seeking such services, due to fears about the spread of the virus. With this in mind, the commissioner’s office sought to assure the public that such services could be accessed safely, and come May, the number of people seeking help increased once more.

The present transitional phase – with the pandemic still very much active, but with the vaccine providing hopes of a turnaround – is now presenting its own challenges. People may now have a different future to prepare for, and the discourse may start to shift from coping to recovery.

Cachia observed that when the first cases were reported in China, the Maltese were not as concerned given the distance between the two countries. But the subsequent escalation of the pandemic in neighbouring Italy proved to be a turning point, with people realising that they were exposed – as it happens, the first known cases of Covid-19 in Malta have been linked to an Italy trip.