Politics on the mind: the effect crises can have on mental health

The longest week in Maltese political history has taken its psychological toll...

Is the state of the nation bringing you down?

Do feelings of betrayal, anger, shock, and regret plague your every waking hour as the island you once called home now starts looking like an entire season of Narcos and Spooks all rolled into one?

You are not alone.

Therapists at the mental health charity Richmond Foundation this week warned that the majority of persons who have sought out therapy over the last few weeks – whether they be Maltese or foreign – have mentioned that the current political crises Malta has been plunged into, have affected them negatively.

Politics certainly seems to be on everyone’s mind, heightened by the fact that in the digital age people are constantly glued to their phones, laptops and tablets. It has simply never been easier to access information, and that means there is a constant link that makes it more difficult than ever for people to distance themselves from what’s going on around them. It is a reality which can, in turn, negatively impact their health.

“In a small country such as Malta where political affiliations are very strong, and at times provide a sense of identity to individuals, a political crisis may generate worry, anger, a sense of betrayal,” a Richmond psychologist who spoke to MaltaToday, said.

The Foundation has highlighted that in the current situations, people who stand on any part of the political spectrum may be affected. It highlighted that the unparalleled waves of protests, which the country has seen, may also contribute towards some people feeling “tense, and fearing that the situation may escalate.”

“For people who may already be suffering from a mental health issue, or have a history of mental illness, such situations may trigger long-term effects, even relapses which individuals may take longer to recover from,” the Foundation said.

The Foundation said that Malta’s two-party system may have also left the nation with an unhealthy relationship with politics. “In Malta, we have quite a high rate of engagement in political activity, which could be termed as a positive; on the other hand, the fact that our political system remains based on two main parties makes for a highly polarised system, which for a number of people may translate in an ‘us and them.’”

Similarly, academic and President of the Malta Chamber of Psychologists (MCP) Marilyn Clark, told MaltaToday that while it was difficult to accurately predict the impact of the recent period of unrest on the mental well-being of the nation; she believed that it could have long-term effects.

Professor Marilyn Clark (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Professor Marilyn Clark (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

In 2017, Clark carried out a study on the journalistic profession for the Council of Europe (CoE). It found that up to 69% of journalists in CoE countries reported experiencing intimidation, harassment and other instances of psychological violence at some point during their career. She said it would take time for faith in Maltese democracy to be restored at this point.

“The social divisions that have been revived during such a stressful time, will need to be addressed and healed. However, the social unrest poses a number of psychology risks for the country, it may also be an opportunity for positive change and the development towards a more mature democracy,” Clark said.

The MCP has also urged the authorities, public officials and politicians to put the nation’s mental, emotional and psychological well-being at the forefront of any decision they made.

Spokesperson and psychologist Cher Laurenti Engerer added that the recent political climate had created a strong sense of unrest, uncertainty, instability, anger, loss and fear within the country. “This pathological and unhealthy social current breeds a sense of betrayal and helplessness and may cause stress-induced psychological repercussions, especially on those prone to anxiety and depression.”

Laurenti Engerer said the situation risked leaving a long-term impact on the nation’s well-being, that could “no longer go on”.

The Chamber urged people to come together, and to put differences aside and not let such a climate “cause division, hostility and separation.”

But the current situation not only affects adults: the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health appealed to the public to treat children and young people with care during this “current social turmoil”.

The association said that it was imperative that young citizens were not “forgotten” and that they are provided with “mature adult guidance to comprehend the sudden collapse of stability.”

“In one way or another, children and young people are privy to possibly contrasting views, opinions and attitudes, which might confuse them and create in them a sense of insecurity. Additionally, they are witnessing an increase in violence such as the use of vulgar language and hate speech online,” they said.

The association said that it was important that children and young people were not given the impression that “such words and actions have suddenly become appropriate and acceptable” in society.

“They are not acceptable, and as adults, we all have a responsibility to model healthier ways of coping with anger and managing situations where other people are expressing strong opposing beliefs.”

The association recommended that parents, carers, teachers, etc. allow space for children and young people to talk about their observations, opinions, free from judgement and disapproval.

Clark advised that being mindful of the personal toll the current situation might be having was the first step in staying grounded “despite the negative tensions that prevail”.

“Becoming involved in political advocacy may leave us depleted of energy, so choosing which issues to focus on may help us to not feel overwhelmed. The rapidity of the unfolding of events is also leading to extensive use of social media, with people finding themselves glued to their screens for hours on end. Disconnecting for designated periods of time will help decrease stress and maintain perspective,” she said.

The Richmond Foundation also advised that individuals need to approach politics from a more “rational, critical stance” –  which included asking questions about the role politicians are meant to have, and whether the persons who put themselves forward have the right “aptitude to serve the common good.”

Emotionally, the Foundation said that persons needed to protect themselves by taking time away from following what was happening and to try and engage in other activities which they enjoy.

“The country needs honest, intelligent individuals of integrity who can create a sustainable economy which provides for the good quality of life of one and all; the state needs to strengthen its structures to ensure that the right checks and balances are in place to ensure that politics objectively serve the principles of social justice and equity,” the Foundation said.