The sign carved into the massive gateway strikes you as soon as you walk up the driveway – “Mount Carmel – asylum for the insane”. There it stands, a supposed modern-day Bedlam, a relic of the past that has spectacularly failed to keep up with the progress of the rest of Malta’s healthcare system. Only it didn’t quite seem like that.
The first thing that hit was me was how ridiculously easy it is to walk in and out of the building. Yes, there is a security post manned by three or four security guards but they were more focused on letting cars in and out of the gate and chatting amongst themselves than they were on screening the people who walked in and out of the pedestrian’s entrance. Honestly, it’s no wonder so many patients have escaped Mount Carmel so far this year. Of course, Mount Carmel is a hospital not a prison but many of its patients don’t have full control over their senses and allowing them to just walk out as they please could be asking for trouble.
The garden at Mount Carmel
The second thing that struck me was how absolutely tranquil the garden is. Suggestions for Mount Carmel’s future often involve knocking the whole thing down and moving patients to smaller centres where they can mingle with communities, and there is a lot of psychological research to back that argument up. And yet, with loud noises infiltrating all corners of the island, there is something extremely beautiful in the isolated peace and quiet of Mount Carmel’s garden. If you didn’t know where you were, you could easily believe it was a retreat.
It was raining so not many patients were outside, but quite a few of them were gathered at the canteen, some chatting with each other and a old lady sleeping on a bench. The canteen itself is a quaint room complete with a pet budgie to light up the atmosphere, and it sells everything from soap and razors to jars of Nutella, biscuits and batteries. The food is dirt cheap – a beef burger only costs €1.50, while a baguette with salami, mortadella, egg and coleslaw costs €2, and a chicken salad costs €3.50. Three cigarette machines are lined right outside the canteen, and they are clearly very popular; most patients I could see had a cigarette in their hand.
The hospital grounds themselves are massive and they probably take a good 15-20 minutes to circumnavigate. They include a small playground with a set of swings, a rusty seesaw and a merry-go-round and probably the cheapest gym in Malta – around €50 for a whole year’s membership. Apart from the child and adolescence wards and the ‘halfway house’ for patients, all the wards and units are behind the hospital’s four walls – some connected to each other, others separate, some in buildings that could well have been constructed in the 1800s and others far more modern-looking. The Forensic Unit for convicted criminals with mental health problems is at the very far end of the hospital ground and patients there are not allowed to leave the building or mingle with their peers.
Old and new: These buildings are right next to each other
Some of the walls are really low and it instantly crossed my mind how easy it is for patients to escape the hospital without even having to pass by security. A reminder of the dangers of such low level security is in full view for visitors – a bathroom window in the mixed admission ward a teenage patient had recently slipped out of before he escaped the hospital and later found dead in a Bugibba hotel. This window is now firmly barred shut, although other windows across the hospital have not been afforded the same treatment.
Not exactly hard to jump over and leave the hospital
The bathroom window a teenage boy escaped from this month, now firmly barred
Mount Carmel forces patients to abide by very strict routines. Wake-up is at around 7am and is absolutely not optional, with nurses forcing non-compliant sleepy patients out of bed. Patients then move to the dining area for breakfast, and then it is time for therapy or classes (eg. In arts and crafts) which is again completely optional. Lunch is super early, at around 11am, and is followed by free time – where patients can either chill out, socialise or meet their loved ones during visiting hours. Dinner is at around 5-6pm, after which patients are allowed to relax in their wards, before lights go out at around 8pm. This routine has become life for some institutionalised patients there; some actually have their addressees on their ID cards registered at Mount Carmel and one 26-year-old patient has been living there since she was seven…
The situation in one of the female wards was extremely miserable – strongly medicated old ladies sprayed out in wheelchairs, their mouths agape and murmuring gibberish to each other and the nurses. From the ceiling to the walls to the doors to the floor tile, these wards are all white, giving it a hospital-like aura with an added stench of old people’s homes. Yet at the same time, it also felt like a living space – with sofas, televisions, chairs, tables, flowers and several paintings, perhaps drawn by the patients themselves, adorning the ward.
The visiting area of a female ward
One of the male wards was very basic – two men were chatting to each other at a wooden table, another was sitting on an armchair and staring blankly into space, and another intently watching CNN on a television set. All of them were puffing at cigarettes, turning the room into a smoke chamber. If the room had smoke detectors, they were clearly non-functioning, and I wondered what would happen if a strongly medicated patient had to someday pass out and drop a lit cigarette onto a flammable object…
Rules are there to be broken?
I wasn’t allowed to visit the infamous Ward8B, the ward for drug addicts whose shocking conditions were exposed last year and from which two patients recently escaped.
The upshot? Mount Carmel is not the hellhole some people portray it as, but it certainly looks and feels like a blast from the past – at once both tranquil and miserable. It sounds like a truly calming experience for patients who stay there for a week or two, but maddeningly tedious for those who stay there for much longer.