Mental illness is no laughing matter

While jokes like this can’t be condoned, they should serve as a reminder that more needs to be done on mental health, rather than an excuse to direct hate towards “the stupid people” who did it

(Cartoon: Mikiel Galea)
(Cartoon: Mikiel Galea)

The Carnival float which poked fun at mental health issues at Nadur last weekend caused a good deal of outrage on social media. The rusty white van had ‘Mount Carmel clinic’, ‘dimensia’, ‘crazy sick people’ and ‘Mount Carmel taxi’ painted over it. People were seen on top of the van drinking and enjoying the Gozo carnival festivities.

If the intention was to provoke a reaction, it certainly got one: many took to social media to vent their anger and disgust, and many politicians and organisations took the opportunity to remind us that there was nothing funny about mental illness.

Yet in a sense, that was also what that van was reminding us, in a much more brutal and vulgar fashion. While mental illness is clearly not a laughing matter, one must also appreciate the context. Some may have taken that float as pushing the boundaries of the acceptable too far: but Carnival in general (and Nadur’s Carnival in particular) has always been about pushing those boundaries. It is a moment where the profane should be allowed its ‘safe space’ and not be conditioned by notions of political correctness.

And Carnival was never a paragon of good taste to begin with. While other, more respectable floats are less offensive, they are nonetheless also deliberately grotesque and bizarre. Carnival is also a celebration of the absurd, when all our blemishes are farcically accentuated... precisely to expose how ridiculous and offensive they truly are.

Whether any of this was present in the minds of the Nadur jokers themselves is naturally debatable: but there is no doubt that they are keeping alive one of our more insalubrious traditions. That tradition of ‘mocking the unmockable’ also serves a sociological purpose: like the jester in the court of the king, it is a reminder of the superficiality of our moral perceptions. It illustrates the truism that taboos must sometimes be broken, so that the reason for their taboo status is reinforced.

In this case, the ‘joke’ also has a serious undertone (again probably unintended). That van was a crude caricature, but a caricature of a reality that exists and is also deeply unpleasant. Indeed, the most outrageous thing about the whole affair is that, given the state of Mount Carmel Hospital, one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it was an actual van used by the hospital.

One can only question whether this outrage has been misdirected. It maybe an exaggeration to describe it as a reflection of the actual situation: but it is true that Mount Carmel Hospital has been allowed to fall into a disastrous state over the years.  Malta deserves a better mental health hospital: which to be fair the Government has promised...but in the light of recent occurrences, it is equally plain that the subject needs to be given more importance.

Yet the most we seem willing to do on mental health issues is direct some temporary outrage at a few people who probably didn’t consider that their joke was insensitive in the first place.

Moreover, some of this outrage is misplaced... especially when it comes from politicians who are responsible for the sector to begin with. For one thing, politicians are not there to express “shock” and “disgust” – and as politicians, they will surely have seen a lot more shocking things in their time. For another, Facebook outrage is not going to solve the problem: only policy and implementation can do that.

A politician’s responsibility, in this instant, is to devise and implement a functional mental healthcare policy. And the same applies to other issues, too. All too often, however, our politicians stick to merely saying what is safe – what they know will meet with public approval – while ignoring the elephant in the room.

No amount of MPs expressing their shock at that van will make the slightest contribution in helping people suffering with mental health problems: or for that matter, in changing public perceptions. For that, you need a well-planned national campaign. An MP who feels strongly enough about it to comment on Facebook, should also push for change with the same energy.       

This incident in fact reflects a trend among Malta’s political class, which is now very sensitised to the power of social media. Whenever something like this happens, it is viewed as an opportunity to get some coverage by saying “the right thing”, despite them being unable to contribute anything beyond a ‘like’ or a status update.

Meanwhile, the problems at Mount Carmel persist, and there is a perception that the situation is in fact worsening. It would be preferable, at this stage, if MPs and Cabinet ministers informed the public of the Government’s plans to deliver on its pre-electoral promise of a mental health reform.

While jokes like this can’t be condoned, they should serve as a reminder that more needs to be done on mental health, rather than an excuse to direct hate towards “the stupid people” who did it. Besides, criticising a joke in poor taste at the Nadur Carnival is hardly going to fix the situation. For all the outrage, it seems that mental health is not something that people feel strongly enough about.