Mario Galea urges government, media to wake up to mental illness reality

Private members' bill aimed at tackling Malta's obesity problem passes second reading. • Simon Busuttil praises 'first full law proposed by an Opposition'

Opposition MP Mario Galea criticised the government and the media for not doing enough to tackle the growing mental illness phenomenon.  

“There is no health without mental health and it’s useless for a person to be physically fit if he is always depressed or over-stressed,” Galea told parliament during the continuation of the second reading of a bill aimed at combatting obesity. “People with mental health problems also tend to eat more junk food, either because they don’t have enough money or because they don’t know how to budget their pensions, or because they would have lost their cooking skills.”

He slammed the government for not allocating enough funds to mental health in this year’s budget and for ‘politicising’ Mount Carmel with the appointment of former Labour candidate Clifton Galea as the hospital’s CEO. He also questioned the decision behind the replacement of Mater Dei’s Crisis Intervention Team with two psychiatric nurses

In an impassioned speech, Galea also urged journalists to report the problems faced by people with mental health problems more extensively.    

“According to an EU survey, 50 million European citizens are suffering from mental illnesses, of which only 26 million seek help,” Galea said. “The others don’t seek help either because their GPs don’t refer them to psychologists or psychiatrists or because they are afraid of the stigma attached to mental health. Many people are ashamed to admit that they are suffering from mental illnesses but there is nothing to be ashamed of. I take anti-depressant medication myself.”

Galea warned that uncured depression can lead to suicide and that the suicide rate has spiked at an alarming rate in recent years so that a suicide now occurs every four seconds. He added that police officers aren’t trained in dealing with people on the verge of committing suicide.     

‘First whole law proposed by an Opposition’

The bill was proposed by then-shadow minister for youth and sport Robert Cutajar. According to Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, this is probably the first time that an Opposition has proposed an entire law, rather than merely legal amendments.

“This will be the first law in Europe to tackle obesity in such a comprehensive manner,” Busuttil said. “A person is nothing without his health, and health should therefore be a policy priority. However, while health is often spoken about solely in terms of treatment, this bill is aimed at tackling the problem before it even arises.”

Citing illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes, Busuttil warned that obesity causes people to lose their serenity.  
“Obese people don’t feel good, as they are always battling their excess weight and problems linked with it,” Busuttil said. “Malta’s sunny temperatures make it an ideal place for outdoor exercise. However, a European survey shows thatthe Maltese are amongst the most obese and amongst the least physically active in Europe.”

He also pointed out that people living on the poverty line are more likely to become obese, since they are more likely to spend their money on cheaper food that is ultimately worse for their health.

“We can’t simply view poverty as the lack of food but as the lack of healthy food too,” Busuttil said.  

‘Junk food restrictions for school-side shops can be enforced’ – Cutajar

In closing comments, Opposition MP Robert Cutajar, the drafter of the bill, hit back at allegations made by parliamentary secretary for local councils Stefan Buontempo regarding the bill’s proposal to restrict the food items that shops next to schools are able to sell. According to Buontempo, this proposal will cause too much confusion and will be very difficult to enforce.

“Several people sell unhealthy food to children right outside their schools, and I don’t agree that this law will be impossible to enforce,” Cutajar said, while adding that a consultative council will be responsible for coming up with the range that would legally qualify shops and stalls as being ‘next to a school’.

Cutajar also said that he has no problems with health secretary Chris Fearne’s proposal to insert a clause regarding the times in which unhealthy-food adverts should be broadcast on TV.

The bill successfully passed its second reading and will now pass onto the Consideration of Bills Committee for approval.     

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