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Mental health – dawn of new era - Chris Fearne

Brock Chisholm, the first Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), was a psychiatrist who articulated the notion that mental and physical health were intimately linked.

He famously stated that “without mental health there can be no true physical health”.

The mental health strategy being launched for public consultation today is built on the principle that mental health services must be strongly integrated with all other health services.

It also recognises that mental health and well-being can be achieved by building resilience within individuals and communities.

We are doing this already by implementing policies in line with our ethos and social conscience; by creating employment opportunities, by reducing material poverty and by modernising our approaches to education and substance misuse.

Yet, it is not enough. We must go further.

Last week, the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published their flagship biennial review Health at a Glance in Europe. For the first time, they dedicated a whole chapter to mental health, one of the most significant public health challenges of the 21st century. Our approach is very much in synch.

Mental health is the first thematic priority to be addressed within the ambit of our National Health Strategy 2020-2030. Al-though this strategy is still under development, given the importance and urgency of making a quantum quality leap in mental health, I took the conscious decision to accelerate the development of the mental health thematic priority.

It is estimated that the burden of mental illness costs our country around €400 million annually

For this I am truly grateful to the drafting team led by Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat. Assisted by experts from the Regional Office for Europe of the World Health Organisation and the Bart’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, they have delivered a visionary document in record time.

However, I will only be satisfied when data starts to show that we have transformed the mental health system and improved the mental health of our population, also in record time.

This government is determined to do all that is necessary to positively transform the mental health sector. We have already increased the budget by an additional sum of over €9 million for 2019.

We have started work to refurbish and repurpose Mount Carmel Hospital and we have set into motion the process of planning the new acute mental health hospital on the Mater Dei Hospital campus.

We have also started to reorganise our community mental health services and we will ensure that the new community health hubs in Paola and the north of Malta will have appropriate facilities for mental health services.

There remains much more to be done. 

We need to invest in developing capacity of the mental health workforce and modern electronic health. We also have to intensify our efforts and resources to address the mental health needs of children and adolescents.

Mental illness deserves no less than any other physical illness. It is estimated that the burden of mental illness costs our country around €400 million annually. While the economy is important, my motive for prioritising and accelerating mental health is a humanistic one. 

I believe in helping people fulfil their potential and maximize their well-being. I firmly believe in leaving nobody behind.

It is a formidable agenda. We have the vision and the energy. However, we cannot do this alone.

While recognising the sheer scale of this commitment, I am convinced that if we all come together as a nation combining our knowledge, resources and passion, we can achieve a turnaround in the mental health system for our country, as we have done in other areas.

The launch of this strategy is an important moment to engage all society in determining what action we can each take to improve mental health and well-being in Malta. I invite you all to join so that together we chart the future course for the dawn of a new era for mental health in Malta.

Chris Fearne is Deputy Prime Minister.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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