A suggestion of what Christabelle can do - Kristina Chetcuti

A suggestion of what Christabelle can do - Kristina Chetcuti

Christabelle with the Prime Minister.Christabelle with the Prime Minister.

It is very likely that at some point or other you’ve heard someone utter, in hushed, scandalised tones, the phrase: “Ħaduh Frankuni!”, when someone is admitted to the mental hospital.

That word Frankuni was coined in the 1850s but is still around today, and still loaded with stigma. It stemmed from an old historic villa in Floriana, Villa Franconi. In 1835, 80 mentally ill patients were settled in this former residence of Fra Fabrizio Franconi, a knight of the Order of St John.

The villa was only used for about 25 years because the patients were later moved to a newly built hospital in the limits of Attard. But those 25 years meant a lot for language semantics: the name of the villa became synonymous with mental problems and was absorbed in daily parlance and in the national psyche.

In 1861, Villa Franconi ceased to be a hospital. One night in July, 253 patients were stealthily moved to the new Monte Carmeli ‘Lunatic Asylum’, purposely built as far away as possible from residential areas (back then Attard was a tiny minor village), subscribing to the idea that mentally ill people were to be isolated and cut off from society.

This new ‘asylum’ was built on one storey, with the main wards radiating out from central circular domed halls and surrounded by ample agricultural land for the patients to work. According to Prof. Charles Ventura-Savona in his paper ‘Mental Disease in Malta’, within a few years of its opening, the hospital was held in high esteem internationally, in a field which was then (and still is) feared by many.

In fact, in 1893 the hospital was awarded a medal and an outstanding certificate by a US Congress commission “for structural and sanitary improvements and evidence of general comfort and welfare on inmates”. The minute I read this, I promptly thought: would Mount Carmel receive this award today?

The answer is a resounding NO. Today, 157 years later, half of this Attard hospital has been condemned by architects;  roofs of several wards are in danger of collapse; parts of the ceiling is supported by scaffolding; metal support jacks hold beams in place in wards that are still in use. Patients are either being crammed into the few structurally sound wards or moved to elderly people’s homes.

NGOs are deeply concerned, and Mental Health Commissioner John Cachia has repeatedly insisted that an overhaul at Mount Carmel Hospital is long overdue. Structure is not the only problem: staff shortages are becoming worse. A Mount Carmel official said: “Elections are always a problem, because politicians try to please nurses who ask to be transferred from Mount Carmel. This happened again last June, with many never being replaced.”

Would our Christabelle consider visiting Mount Carmel, cameras in tow, and speak out about the hospital’s dire state?

Then, last week, a tragedy. A teenage patient was found dead two days after seeking help at Mount Carmel, due to huge staff shortages. The doctors had recommended the patient be constantly watch but no nurse was available for that, and with no one monitoring him, he broken open a toilet window, escaped, and was later found dead in Buġibba. The Times of Malta reports that there are 22 patients who are supposed to be under constant watch, but there are no nurses to do so.

I don’t know what more needs to happen for the alarm bells to ring any louder. Have you ever visited Mount Carmel? I have. And it’s one of those places where even the smell gets to the pit of your stomach and makes you queasy. You look around you and sadness weeps from the walls, from the colonial iron beds, from the yellowish zokklu, from the lack of privacy in the dormitory rooms. Remember St Luke’s? It’s 50 times worse than that. You would think that the space of a mental hospital is meant to aid the patient to restore his soul, but today’s Mount Carmel makes even a healthy person want to run away to the end of the world.

The building has such a stigma attached to it now that the only thing that can be done with it is to completely gut it on the inside and turn it into an art museum, like a Tate Malta or something. The actual mental hospital needs to be transferred to an appendix building to Mater Dei so as to truly stamp out all taboos.

And, of course, we cannot but cry over those millions the government has paid to Vitals Global Healthcare – only for it to be pocketed by secret, shady shareholders – when with that money we could have tackled mental health once and for all.

There is some hope. Singer Christabelle Borg won the Malta Eurovision Song Contest with her song Taboo with which, she says, she wants to break the stigma surrounding mental health.

Perhaps she would do well to follow on the footsteps of her namesake: Christabel Pankhurst, a brave activist and suffragette in the UK who fought for what was right.

Would our Christabelle actually consider visiting Mount Carmel, cameras in tow, and speak out about the hospital’s dire state? Would she push the Prime Minister, the President and all the other country leaders she’s been meeting, to act on it? Would she, when she meets them, put her hand out, stop their clichés about “doing Malta honour” and say: “Hey, dudes, stop gushing about me – when are you going to do something about that hospital that is falling to bits? Have you heard that a teen just died because there’s no staff?”

That would make the headlines – not only here, but even in the Eurovision circles – and maybe the pressure would mount so much that something would finally get done.

Twitter: @KrisChetcuti

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