Psychiatrist in bid for national suicide prevention crisis team

An estimated 5,000 Maltese and Gozitan citizens are affected by mental illness

An estimated 5,000 Maltese and Gozitan citizens are affected by mental illness
An estimated 5,000 Maltese and Gozitan citizens are affected by mental illness

The psychiatrist Mark Xuereb is calling for a nationwide strategy to implement a suicide prevention hotline and motion-sensitive webcams at notorious death spots.

Xuereb, who pioneered a crisis team that runs the hotline on a 24/7 basis, told MaltaToday he wants it to have nationwide coverage.

“There has never been a crisis prevention unit before this one,” he said. “The mother of all taboos is suicide and it’s also the ultimate tragedy… we desperately need it.”

Xuereb said last month alone saw five people committing suicide. “For each completed attempt, 20 contemplate it, and for every consummated act or contemplation, six loved ones are affected for life.”

These, in turn, he said, run the risk of facing mental illness and marginalisation.

“This amounts to some 5,000 Maltese and Gozitans affected every year,” Xuereb said, whose crisis team is run by professionals offering free advice to callers and visitors.

“I have done most of the spadework,” he says, “including identifying training sources and the costing of the projects.”

In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) identified depression as the most common debilitating illness worldwide, superseding cancer and heart disease put together.

“Depression is a strong risk factor for suicide,” Xuereb said. “It’s a crisis in itself. Any mental health issue has an associated crisis regardless of age and the nature of presentation.”

Xuereb is now proposing a nationwide strategy to fight these crises, with the installation of phone booths, motion sensitive webcams and loudspeakers at the seven most common sites where people jump to their deaths, as well as legislation so as to have a psychological first-aider at work to spot crises early, and a national 24/7 crisis team.

Xuereb said he has been campaigning for this with his own 24/7 crisis resolution and home treatment team since he returned from the UK in 2008, where he worked to implement national strategies related to crisis management, dementia, self-harm and violence.

“We need to sharpen our mental health frontline service, which should be as crisp as Mater Dei Hospital Accident & Emergency,” he said. “People are not mere statistics: they have a face, a name and a family.”

The stigma is so strong, he added, that people who are suffering have no voice. “We have to be their voice.”

Xuereb also welcomes visitors at the neurostimulation clinic at Da Vinci Health Hospital in Birkirkara where Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) machines are available to patients.

“TMS is a non-invasive procedure to help fight depression and other debilitating illnesses. It uses a magnetic pulse to stimulate brain cells that control mood,” he said.

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