The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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‘The earlier we seek help, the better we are taking care of our mental health’

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 24 April 2022, 08:30 Last update: about 9 months ago

The earlier we seek help, the better we are taking care of our mental health, Chief Operations Officer of Richmond Foundation, Daniela Calleja Bitar, said.

Several people suffer from a mental problem, which has become severely prevalent in youth nowadays. The Malta Independent on Sunday sat down with Calleja Bitar, as well as former DJ radio host David ‘Ozi’ Borg, to speak about Richmond’s upcoming launch of a youth mental health campaign and listen to Borg’s story.

The youth mental health campaign, which is a European Social Fund project, focuses mainly on mental health issues experienced by youth, primarily those between the ages of 13 and 25, Calleja Bitar said.

The social media campaign includes the launch of a website called ‘Ankra,’ which provides information about the main problems experienced by younger people, such as self-harm, suicide, anxiety, and depression. The foundation also launched a fund-raising campaign, supported by a wide range of media houses, which will run through the next four weeks. 

Calleja Bitar said that the campaign has videos targeting mental health at its core, which educators and professionals who work with younger persons could also learn from, as youth mental health involves cognitive development, since the brain is still growing and forming.

Partnered with Mental Health Services Malta, Foundation of Social Welfare Services, Fejda (Conservatorio Vincenzo Bugeja), OASI as well as Borg, the campaign, titled ‘Taking Care of our Youth’s Mental Health’ was launched on Friday.

Asked how many youths approach Richmond for their mental health services, Calleja Bitar confirmed that between the years 2020 and 2022, the foundation has seen a 1300% increase in demand for services in youths aged 13 to 21[SG1] . Additionally, 3,600 help chats were handled in OLLI Chat’s first year

“This is a good thing,” intercepted Borg, who came across Richmond after having met Calleja Bitar some 15 years ago. He eventually started speaking out about mental health after many years.

Borg’s story with regard to his mental health goes back a long way, as signs of mental health issues started from the early age of 12. Now in his 40s, Borg said that there was not a lot of knowledge, information, nor resources about mental health growing up, and there was still a big stigma around it.

“My issue was that from the time I started having mental health issues, until the time I really started getting help for it, there was about 15 years. Those 15 years were critical, and they are the reason as to why I am still struggling nowadays, because the longer you let it develop, the harder it is to peel back the layers of damage that has been done,” Borg said.

Borg was diagnosed with complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in his mid to late 20s. The condition results into extreme anxiety, which is the worst part of it, he said.

Borg highlighted one of the biggest problems with regards to mental health illnesses in his perspective, one of which has been finding, as well as funding resources. 

“If I had to put a number on the amount of money I spent on my mental health over the years, it would amount to over €20,000. Many people cannot afford that, so what are they supposed to do? they just end up suffering,” Borg said.

“Just as many people globally suffer from mental health issues as they do from cancer, and the consequences can be equally as serious when one looks at suicide rates,” Borg said.

What can one do? The solution is to find treatment elsewhere, which proves to be expensive. Therapy sessions often cost €35 to €40, whilst psychiatrists can cost up to €80 for a mere consultation, Borg said. This along with medication expenses and other types of treatment, is unaffordable for many, especially youth, who end up suffering in silence, not only the mental anguish, but the physical pain that comes along with it.

The project focuses on early prevention, which focuses on understanding symptoms of a mental illness like one understands the symptoms of a cold, Calleja Bitar said.

“It is an injection for our youth to grow up and become adults who can recognise symptoms in younger people, which results into slowly building a healthier community,” she said. “We are still quite far from recognising symptoms in youth, as the older generation have not been educated enough in this regard,” Calleja Bitar said.

The project caters towards youth as well as parents and guardians and sheds light on both perspectives.

Asked about how one could recognise symptoms of mental health in themselves or in others, Calleja Bitar said that it is usually a change in one’s behaviour, which can be subtle, and occur over a prolonged period of time, ranging to as little as two weeks or up to a month.

This is especially if something has happened which triggered the change in behaviour, however it could be nothing at all. Symptoms include experiencing no enjoyment, being withdrawn, acting out, wearing long sleeves in summer to hide self-harm injuries, among others, she said.

Borg regarded mental health issues as an epidemic, especially within youth, as mental health problems can start as early as one can be exposed to issues. “It is usually a chemical imbalance, which is enforced by the environment around us changing,” he said.

“Withdrawal is a more serious symptom, as the further they withdraw, the more serious their mental health issues are, which is more prevalent in teenagers,” Borg said.

“Parents and guardians should not be scared of exploring treatment for children at an early age, as that is when you can really find the root of the problem. If you let it fester and develop over 10 to 20 years, there is usually no coming back, and at that point it’s about having to fight for the rest of your life,” Borg said.

Borg said that a key indicator is to monitor a child’s joy factor. It is a red flag if you never see a child experience joy, he said.

He recalled the moments where he truly realised he was suffering from a problem, when in his 20s, he would go through periods where he would spend days being physically unable to communicate due to anxiety and severe paranoia.

“People can go through life and struggle mentally, but when you get to a certain level where it takes over physically, that’s when it becomes very difficult,” Borg said, adding that he is still trying to overcome the physical part of mental health problems.

Borg said that his journey has been tough, and still is. He said that dealing with mental health problems takes constant work and has been the biggest battle of his life.

“I am determined to win though, because I am stubborn and resilient,” Borg said, adding that the key is learning to build a toolkit to be able to deal with mental health on a daily basis, to consequently live a decent quality of life.

Asked about if there is a recovery period for mental health, or if one can overcome it completely, Borg said that mental health is an injury for life, but he will not stop fighting.[SG2]  “If caught early, it doesn’t have to be an injury for life. However, if left untreated for a long period of time, the likelihood of a full recovery reduces significantly,” Borg said.

“My plan is to one day be recovered, and my goal is to get off the medications and have the tools I can use to be able to maintain it properly. Do I see recovery now? No. Is it possible? Yes,” Borg said.

Asked about changes Borg would like to see within the government, he said that the government needs to start taking mental health seriously.

“Resources on the ground are not there, and foundations like Richmond have a hefty waiting list,” Borg said, adding that people who cannot pay for private treatment will keep getting worse.

“The epidemic is a serious one, and we need to see more experiences of people with mental health issues,” Borg said. Borg said that the government should handle mental health with the same importance as it did with the Covid-19 pandemic, as it is just as big of a problem.

“Like any person who has an ailment can go to a polyclinic and get seen, a person suffering from mental health problems should be able to go to a clinic and get seen,” Borg said.

 

People can log on here to read more about how they can help.

If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out to Richmond on their helpline 1770 or chat with them on OLLI.chat. Both are free and available 24/7.

 

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