The Malta Independent 29 May 2024, Wednesday
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Watch: Nationalist MP Mario Galea speaks about his mental illness

Therese Bonnici Monday, 2 February 2015, 11:00 Last update: about 10 years ago

Every 40 seconds someone, somewhere in the world commits suicide. In the EU, that figure is one person every nine minutes. Untreated depression is the main cause why people take their own life. MP MARIO GALEA speaks to Therese Bonnici about his own experience of depression and the prevailing stigma that is stopping many people from seeking help.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is claiming that, by 2025, mental health care problems will be more common than cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

"Why do we continue to speak about the prevention of obesity and cardiovascular disease, and not about the prevention of mental health problems? What does it matter that I'm perfectly healthy physically if I'm feeling depressed?" Mr Galea asks.

The WHO rightly states that health is a complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity - therefore there is no health without mental health.

Unfortunately, stigma still very much prevails on mental illnesses. "There is a defining silence about mental health. When someone is admitted to Mater Dei Hospital, they're not afraid to talk about it. We even go so far as taking selfies from a hospital bed and uploading them on Facebook! But someone suffering from mental health problems does not often speak up, and it is precisely because of this stigma."

During his time as parliamentary secretary, Mr Galea suffered from depression himself. Just recently, he suffered a relapse. However, despite pressure from some quarters to keep it a secret, the MP has spoken openly about his health problem.

"At the time I had two options: follow the crowd and hide it, or speak about it openly in the hope of persuading others to seek help. Speaking about my mental illness was a risk I was willing to take, even though some people told me it might jeopardise my chances of being elected again."

Depression does not discriminate. It can hit anyone - irrespective of background, age, status or educational levels. It can affect children, people in their middle years and the elderly. It makes no difference whether you are wealthy or hard up. Some studies do indicate that people living in poverty are more prone to mental illnesses, but no-one is excluded from the possibility of being affected.

Scientist Isaac Newton, music composer Beethoven, Former US President Abraham Lincoln, artist Van Gogh, and politician Winston Churchill all suffered from mental illness. It is thought that Churchill used to visit Mdina when he felt weak.

Recently, three members of the House of Commons in the UK opened up about suffering from mental illness, prompting a number of NGOs to describe it as "a memorable day". "But the question is - would we make a fuss if someone admitted to having a physical illness? Then why, should it be any different?" Mr Galea asks.

Suffering from mental illness does not mean a person will be a failure. As long as the required treatment is provided, a person can continue to function well in both professional and private life.

If left untreated, however, severe depression can lead to suicide. The statistics from the WHO are shocking: 800,000 suicides each year - a number that does not include the many attempted suicides. It is the second leading cause of death among people aged between 15 and 29. "The issue of suicide is sensitive and needs to be handled with care, but it cannot be taboo," says Mr Galea. "Up until a few years ago, the Church publicly condemned suicide. But I ask how God can judge someone who is so depressed that he feels there is no alternative? Suicide is not OK. But there is help - look for it."

It is estimated that in Malta 35,000 people suffer from mental illness, but only 30 per cent of them seek help. "Our everyday language is heavy loaded with stigma - we abusively use words like tal-ġenn, spissjat, miġnun.

"The media portrays the misguided association between criminals and people with a mental illness. If a hold-up is carried out, news reports do not point out that the culprit was admitted to Mater Dei because of a physical disease but it will point out if he or she has been previously treated at Mount Carmel. Without realising it, we are associating mental illness with criminality, whereas studies show that most criminals have no history of mental illness," Mr Galea points out.

Today, unfortunately, the word 'depression' is abused. Many people are under the misconception that having problems during a difficult period in your life is the same as suffering from depression.

"Suffering from depression creates a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Nothing works for you. This is not a case of having difficulty coping - which everyone goes through at some point in life. It is clinical - some believe caused by a hormonal imbalance - and it may be chronic."

Depression is usually at its worst early in the day, and most of the people who have experienced it will tell you that they do not want to get out of bed to face the day ahead.

"I've had people trying to persuade me to go out when I was at my worst. Others said: "Just go to mass and do away with medication,' says Mr Galea. " I do believe in praying, but one cannot do without professional help in such cases. We should not let such misconceptions keep us from seeking help. I'm sure these people have the best of intentions - but it's not that simple. You don't tell someone who just suffered a heart attack to get up and walk," he continues. "Of course you need to have a strong will and most patients carry make every effort to try and feel better. Physical exercise can help tremendously - I walk about 13km a day. But it must be understood that depression is a clinical illness, just like any other."

Mental health does not just have an effect on the individual concerned, but on family members, friends and colleagues. It has a ripple effect. And it is the main cause of infirmity and absence from work.

It is difficult to persuade someone to seek professional help. Professional help comes from professional people: if a person has a kidney problem, he or she consults a nephrologist. In the same manner, a psychiatrist can help with mental illness.

There is also a high correlation between mental and physical illness. People suffering from depression tend to abuse alcohol and drugs because they provide temporary relief. However, both subsequently have long-term effects and intensify depression.

"Being a victim of mental illness is not something you should be ashamed of. And it is not justifiable that any member of society judges you," says Mr Galea. The Nationalist MP spoke mostly about his own experience with depression, but mental illnesses include bipolar disease, insomnia and schizophrenia.

The Richmond Foundation receives 300 calls for help every year. Should you or one of your loved ones require help, please seek it by calling 2122 4580.



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