Our mental health problems require more than just helplines

No matter how many shopping malls, fancy eateries or designer apartments this country has, it is all meaningless if they still fail to make us happy

File photo
File photo

I recently read an interview with Hollywood actress Jennifer Coolidge who described how during the Covid lockdown she fell into a deep, dark depression she thought she would never get out of.

“I was really affected by the pandemic. It was an incredibly sad time. I was reading tragic news stories on a daily basis, had a fatalistic approach and assumed the virus was going to win. I knew people who lost their lives and was convinced we wouldn’t make it through. I wasn’t thinking about work, because I didn’t think we’d be alive.”

When her writer friend Mike White called her to say he had written a role just for her in a new TV show called White Lotus, and that she needed to get on a plane immediately to start shooting in Hawaii, she didn’t want to do it.

“That was an impossibility to my mind. I’d been gorging and self-destructing at home for months, eating pizza all day. There was no way I wanted to be on film unless they shot me from the neck up.”

It was only after much persuasion by both White and another “really smart, savvy, very blunt friend.” that she took the role which this year won her an Emmy, the first in her long career. She credits the support of her friends, who did not give up on her, with pulling her out of her depression.

On the surface, Jennifer Coolidge is one of the many actresses who has all the material advantages one can think of: a career in film and TV (American Pie, Best in Show, Legally Blonde, Two Broke Girls, White Lotus, The Watcher), and a million-dollar mansion in New Orleans which she restored to its former glory.

But, as we have seen with other movie and rock stars, wealth and fame do not necessarily solve all our problems and issues and, paradoxically, they can prove to be even more damaging for someone already struggling with their mental health.

You have everything money can buy, so you should be happy, right? But material possessions cannot put a stop to the downward spiral which comes with loneliness and lack of self-worth.

The picture Jennifer Coolidge painted of locking herself up in her home, obsessing over bad news and using comfort food to assuage her fears and sadness, could be any one of us.

Of course, the way we deal with our dark emotions and mood swings can take different forms: she overate, while others might become anorexic.

Both are eating disorders which point to a much deeper issue. She completely withdrew from society, others might be out, partying every night, not wanting to be alone. Still others might turn to promiscuity, drugs, alcohol, gambling, and even compulsive shopping to quell their stress, anxiety or feelings of emptiness.

The human mind is an amazing, wonderful, and yet very complex organ which can be triggered by so many things, and whole branches of behavioural science and the medical field are completely devoted to trying to understand what makes us all tick. Who knows why one person can be mentally strong enough to handle all the obstacles life throws at them, while another seems to be too fragile to cope with even the slightest setback?

In a week when we have learned of two deaths which turned out to be suicides (which I am mentioning only because their families went public with this information), we cannot keep ignoring the fact that we have a mental health crisis on our hands.

Clinical Psychologist Nicholas Briffa, writing on social media, also voiced his deep concerns:

“I’m shocked by the number of suicides and suicide attempts that we are hearing about in our profession. You end up speechless and feeling incredibly sad. In my clinical experience and that of many of my colleagues, most of the cases tend to involve men.

This fact requires more attention and we need a more efficient and specialised way of conveying our knowledge and assistance. I want to remind the public that doing little things can be worth more than 1,000 words.

“Do not forget to pay attention to the needs of others. Do not forget to send a message or phone to see how someone is. If someone shares a difficult experience with you, after a while ask them about it again. Let’s show more sensitivity towards each other. All of us could be in a position where we are trembling with fear and just limping along. It is terrible when no one notices.

“Do not be afraid of asking the uncomfortable question (which may seem invasive), ‘you seem different lately. Are you happy with your life?’ For those who find themselves in crisis, there is the helpline 179 or else the Richmond Foundation (21224580). Don’t forget that there are also various professional public services which are free. Speak to your GP to be given a referral so that you can be guided towards these services.”

The sound advice given by Nicholas Briffa of how we can handle people with mental health issues is greatly needed, because family and friends often feel helpless and at a loss about how to approach the person who is suffering.

In fact, reading the accounts by the families of the two people mentioned above, you can almost feel the anguish because they could not prevent what happened.

We are constantly being told that more awareness is needed, to check up on those who might be going through something, and to keep the lines of communication open so that they do not get swallowed up even further by a bottomless pit of darkness.

But is all this enough? Many believe that much more professional help is needed.

Meanwhile, this week Health Minister Chris Fearne announced the setting up of a new helpline, saying that:

“People with anxiety, depression or in a state of desperation will be able to call this helpline whenever they want and, if needs be, we’ll tell them to stay on the line until someone comes to help them. Software verification is ongoing and more details, including the number, will be announced by the end of the month.”

No matter how well-meaning, this was not met by the round of hearty applause which Fearne probably expected. There was a distinct absence of the hackneyed phrase “Prosit, Ministru.” In fact, to put it bluntly, most of the comments, such as this one, were scathing:

“…. if you won’t address the mess that is Mount Carmel Hospital, or at the very least launch some kind of mental health long-term plan, these actions are just cosmetic and pointless.”

The closure of the Psychiatric Outpatients at Mater Dei Hospital is another serious issue. The unit was closed in 2020 to make way for more beds for Covid patients and was never re-opened. As many have pointed out, access to mental health services is what is needed, rather than another helpline.

The lasting stigma of Mt Carmel is another aspect of the whole mental health sector which needs to be resolved because even if it is given a makeover, the connotations of that hospital will never be shaken off completely.

In fact, some have suggested setting up a brand-new mental health hospital which would move away from the dreaded words “Mt Carmel.” The lack of enough mental health professionals is another stumbling block.

The Government would do well to stop pumping money in more White Elephants which cost millions, and invest in the country’s mental health services instead.

Apart from the stories which sadly end up as news headlines, it is the vociferous public reaction to the new helpline which has confirmed just how badly we need to take care of the nation’s wellbeing. So many people spoke first hand of the rise in debilitating anxiety, mental disorders and chronic depression.

While citing the lack of access to the services and inevitable long waiting lists to be seen by a professional, they also pointed to our very surroundings as a crucial contributing factor to explain why so many are struggling. We all have stress of course, in varying degrees, but when the problem is interfering with your quality of life, crippling you and preventing you from being happy or being able to function at work and at home, then it goes beyond mere day to day stress.

The constant noise which in some cases prevents adequate sleep, an overcrowded island, the frustrations of traffic which cause our anxiety levels to rise sky high every time we get behind the wheel, the uncontrolled and uncontrollable construction which assaults our senses (and sometimes our very doorstep). None of these are conducive to a peaceful life, and for people who are already on the edge, they can be the tipping point.

We all breathe a sigh of relief when we travel and experience wide open spaces and greenery as far as the eye can see.

Some are even packing their bags and leaving for (literally) greener pastures because the lack of nature has driven them to despair.

It is further proof that no matter how many shopping malls, fancy eateries or designer apartments this country has, it is all meaningless if they still fail to make us happy.