Matthew is a 21-year-old Maltese man who has been dealing with psychosis for the past five years. He sat down with Lovin Malta to help us understand better what it's like to live with this condition, especially in a country like Malta.
Matthew first started seeing signs of psychosis when he was sitting for his O Level exams, around 2013. Stress is a trigger for him, and it generally aggravates his condition so it might be possible that the stress he was dealing with at the time due to his exams, might have influenced his condition.
“I dealt with the symptoms practically by myself for almost two years, without anyone knowing, except for a few friends of mine,” Matthew told Lovin Malta. After some time, the symptoms started to interfere with his life severely, so he decided to talk to his parents about it. “Despite the time spent dealing with it by myself, it was an early enough diagnosis to provide proper early intervention,” he said. This was crucial for the recovery process, since it would mean better hope for treatment and recovery.
It seems like he had already suspected what he had before getting a proper diagnosis, however it was still a bitter pill for him to swallow when he came face to face with the fact that he suffers from psychosis.
“I see things and I hear voices that aren’t really there frequently, and I’ve had instances of smelling, tasting and physically feeling things that aren’t real too."
Since he started experiencing the symptoms, Matthew had begun his studies in Psychology at a post-secondary school. “I am an open-minded person and was exposed to proper mental health education to be able to understand its aspects,” Matthew told us. He had consulted with professionals, who at the time had helped him understand the condition better.
“Since seeking professional help, despite encountering hiccups on the way, I have improved drastically.”
When asked about the symptoms he has experienced throughout the years, Matthew explained that the symptoms of psychosis mainly involve hallucinations — sensory experiences which do not really exist outside of the mind. These experiences can affect any of our five senses, including tactile feelings, physical sensations, visions and sounds.
“I see things and I hear voices that aren’t really there frequently, and I’ve had instances of smelling, tasting and physically feeling things that aren’t real too. Most commonly to my specific case, I see and hear a specific male figure who appears around me and talks to me,” Matthew said.
“This figure has a name; looks and sounds as real as any other person I would encounter. He comments and insults me on things I do or how I feel, things I am doubtful or insecure about. It can be very situational, so if at a point in time there is something that bothers me, exams for example, he will pick on my exam progress or my academic knowledge.” Matthew said.
“I don’t drink alcohol, if I do it’s usually just one beer or a glass of wine. That’s something that I had to change in my lifestyle to be able to better deal with my condition.”
Sometimes, certain episodes of psychosis might make you feel like you have lost track of time, almost as if you have just woken up from a deep sleep or sobering up after having drunk a bit too much.
“There have been a few episodes in my life where I would have an overwhelming surge of hallucinations, coupled with panic attacks, where I feel almost detached — when it dies down I would find it hard to understand how long it would have lasted and other things that have gone on around me during that time,” he continued.
During the first couple of years when he tried to deal with his condition on his own, Matthew's mental health saw a gradual decline to the point where he needed to seek help as it was hindering his ability to function.
When he reached out to get help, he started seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed various medications to him, along with a psychologist for therapy. “I do Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which has helped me a tremendous amount in my life, but I found that the combination of both therapy and medication was a key element in my recovery,” Matthew told us.
He was also on antidepressants and antipsychotics, which were an important part of his treatment, “but personally I found that therapy did help me the most in being able to live with my condition.” He never tried to get any different treatments, since the first time he tried to get help, he felt like in his case, the therapy/medication formula worked very well — thus there was no need to change or alter the treatment he was getting.
“Since seeking professional help, despite encountering hiccups on the way, I have improved drastically.” Matthew told us. However, just like each and every one of us, he still deals with his up and down periods in life.
“Which in my case, are a reflection of my mental health,” Matthew told us. On the whole, he tells us that his condition has improved and hopefully, in the future and with consistent treatment, it will continue to get better.
“It helped me tackle my symptoms by changing my perception of the world and applying to situations in order to understand them more realistically.”
When asked about his feelings towards local doctors and specialists with regards to the way they deal with such conditions, Matthew told us that he was lucky enough to be able to seek help in a private practice, where his condition was dealt with in a very professional manner.
“There has been a lot of concern over the past few years about the mental health services in Malta, namely the way Mount Carmel functions among other things — I believe that these aspects need to be assessed and revised in order to be able to provide better mental health treatment to the community,” he told us.
Due to his condition, Matthew needed to change many behavioural aspects of his life in order to make things more manageable for himself. “I don’t drink alcohol, if I do it’s usually just 1 beer or a glass of wine. That’s something that I had to change in my lifestyle to be able to better deal with my condition."
However trivial these changes might sound to some people, they can still be challenging, and sometimes they can even be misunderstood. “I’ve always thought of them as learning curves and ways of helping me mature. Other people always seem to understand when I explain the reasons for such changes," Matthew said.
“As we know, alcohol is a big part of youth culture in Malta, and even though not drinking sounds easy enough, it’s common to find yourself in situations where there is alcohol available," Matthew said.
“It doesn’t have to be a mental health issue which would be difficult to come to terms with, for anyone."
Stress is another big trigger for Matthew's symptoms, but is unfortunately unavoidable.
"I can’t really not be stressed,” Matthew said. “Instead, I monitor my stress levels and plan stressful situations in advance to be able to mentally deal with them in a prepared and productive way.”
Therapy was a huge factor in helping Matthew keep his symptoms under control because it has helped him to reshape his perception of the world around him.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is based on a concept that everything we feel and think is connected — it helps you deal with problems in a positive way by breaking them down and understanding that changing negative patterns can help you improve the way you feel and how you deal with problems. “It helped me tackle my symptoms by changing my perception of the world and applying to situations in order to understand them more realistically,” Matthew says.
“Out of the people I’ve spoken to about my condition, personally I’ve always had positive encounters.”
“It doesn’t have to be a mental health issue which would be difficult to come to terms with, for anyone. There’s just some news that is hard to hear,” Matthew told us when asked about his family’s reaction to the news of his diagnosis.
“But with a brief adjustment period and the right education and guidance, my family soon came to terms with it and I’ve had their full support and love ever since.” Matthew’s family have truly been supportive of him and have helped him get through a lot.
When he tells people about his condition, he gets many different reactions. Some people are genuinely interested and ask him questions about it, while others are left a bit speechless. Sometimes he even encounters people who are very sympathetic of him too. However, his friends and family have always showered him with support — through both his good times and bad.
"Be understanding, be educated and be aware of mental health. And believe that you are strong enough to make a difference, in your life and of those around you.”
When he was asked about general peoples’ reactions, Matthew seemed quite positive about it. “Out of the people I’ve spoken to about my condition, personally I’ve always had positive encounters.” he said. Even when he meets people who have no idea what his condition is, they still ask questions in a non-judgemental way and are always interested in educating themselves about it.
“That being said, I am aware that there is a cloud over the topic of mental health, but hopefully, with some effort, we can move it out of the shade,” he said.
However, Matthew still feels like people in Malta do not know enough about this condition and that it is due to the fact that mental health education in Malta needs some work. “Sometimes, people don’t really know what to say when presented with such a situation, but I understand that and find no problem with it," he said.
"I think as long as it’s not an overall negative reaction fused with name-calling and insults, it’s always a step in the right direction as people are exposed to the hard truth of metal health issues," he continued.
“It’s important that relationships are based on honesty, trust and understanding, which are all things that make relationships easier for me to maintain.”
Although relationships can be a bit stressful — a factor which can trigger Matthew’s psychosis — he has never really had any problems which were directly related to his condition when it comes to relationships.
“It’s important that relationships are based on honesty, trust and understanding, which are all things that make relationships easier for me to maintain,” he said.
“All I can say is that your effort, the effort of those around you and of us as a community is stronger than anything else," Matthew concluded.
"I have psychosis. I’m in my second year at University studying Psychology. I go out with my friends, I go to parties, I drive and do everything that anyone else can. If you’re reading this and you’re diagnosed with any mental health issue, or you’re not — you have a role to play in the elimination of the stigma surrounding mental health. Be understanding, be educated and be aware of mental health. And believe that you are strong enough to make a difference, in your life and of those around you.”
Organisations such as The Richmond Foundations and Betapsi Malta which organise therapy sessions and are supportive of people and people can always join if they wish to see how they work or what they do.