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Malta needs natural highs not drug-induced ones, psychiatrists say

People who do regular sports generally achieve more academically

Psychiatrists Aloisia Camilleri and Nigel Camilleri. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Psychiatrists Aloisia Camilleri and Nigel Camilleri. Photo: Jonathan Borg

Malta should invest its money and resources in sports facilities and parks that help people deal with stress rather than increase the healthcare bill to cope with the effects of recreational drugs, psychiatrists are urging.

Why would we focus on the recreational use of cannabis, which will not deal with Malta’s problems of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, when we could invest in something that would improve our mental and physical wellbeing, Nigel Camilleri, president of the Maltese Association of Psychiatry asked.

Speaking the Times of Malta as the island continues to discuss the legalisation recreational cannabis, Dr Camilleri reiterated that mental health affected one in four people and did not discriminate. While there was a genetic pre-disposition to mental health problems, there were environmental risk factors that could cause issues.

Read: Distinction between medical and recreational cannabis should be made clear - Delia

Stress – something that everyone, from schoolchildren to retired people are subjected to – is one of the biggest triggers of mental health issues. And this is where coping strategies automatically kick in.

These could be positive, such as going for a walk, listening to music or talking to a friend. Others, like over-eating, alcohol and substance consumption, are considered negative, because despite providing instant relaxation, they could cause long-term problems.

The child and adolescent psychiatrist noted that as Malta becomes more cosmopolitan, people are increasingly looking for their own way of coping with stress.

He drew comparisons between two international examples of an evolving society.

In the UK, a number of middle class professionals have increasingly resorted to drinking alcohol after work, leading to increased acute liver failure problems.

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam people who commute to work have swapped their vehicles for bicycles. This has resulted in an improvement in the overall level of mental health issues, and, at the same time, led to lower pollution.

Dr Camilleri, who has been training and competing as an athlete for 30 years and also cycles to work, said it has been proven that sports allows you to be more alert at work, improving concentration, and therefore, efficacy. At the same time it deals with physical issues such as obesity and helps you develop a sense of internal motivation and perseverance.

“While cannabis helps you relax, it does not improve your physical or mental health. On the other hand, it increases your risks of chest infections and physical illnesses, while damping your socialisation experiences as it makes you more amotivational,” he added.

And yes, you could get a high from sports. Exercise, he explains, produces certain chemicals in the brain that are similar to anti-depressants and provide a “feel-good effect”.

He has been told by a number of ex-drug users who nowadays use sports as a coping mechanism that the high they get from substance abuse does not even compare to the natural high that they get following a training session.

Read: Cannabis is 'a means to have control over myself and my well-being'

Colleague and MAP vice-president Aloisia Camilleri noted that while substance abuse will not trigger mental health issues in everyone, they were all missing out on a general sense of wellbeing.

A psychiatrist with a special interest in addictions, she noted that the negative side effects of substance abuse might not be limited to addiction but included distancing the user from reaching their potential in general.

Research has shown that people who do regular sports generally achieve more academically. At the same time, the resulting irrational behaviour from drug consumption could create stress when they come back to their senses following the high, such as missing work the following day.

A number of road traffic accidents, divorces, bankruptcies and social problems are known to be related to the use of substances or alcohol.

MAP is therefore questioning why the government would want to legalise a negative coping strategy, when it could spend the money that would otherwise be used to treat substance abusers and creating a healthier nation.

Malta, he added, “should focus on investing money in improving the mental wellbeing of people through sports facilities, parks, outdoors spaces for exercise, yoga, martial arts, theatre, etc. rather than increase the country’s expenditure through legalising cannabis and then having to fund treatment associated with this.

“Improving the positive wellbeing of the nation will indirectly treat obesity and reduce funds spent on treating diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.”

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