It feels like every week in Malta brings a new problematic update to the country's mental health situation. Disastrous infrastructural complications, harrowing first-hand accounts, and heartbreaking news of people falling through the net are slowly becoming the order of the day. We've reached a point where most people have already started becoming desensitised to an issue that, if anything, should be at the top of our agenda. But if it's going to take a cheap Carnival trick to finally get us talking about mental health, then so be it.
No Nadur Carnival year is without its controversies. Gruesome and dark humour lies at the very heart of the traditional spontaneous street celebrations, with some people even going on to argue that it's all been significantly toned down in recent years to resemble a gentrified street rave. Last decade's controversies belonged to religious satire, but now that we've crossed that bridge as a country (emotionally and legally), others still persist.
Beyond the tone-deaf cases of cultural appropriation which inevitably rear their heads every now and then, one congregation definitely took the inappropriate cake this year; a banged up, rusty van with the words Mount Carmel Taxi hastily painted across the top. Along the sides, words like Crazy Sick People and Dimensja were also written on the van, which also boasted the eight-pointed cross (just in case the point wasn't already hammered home enough). And to top it all off (quite literally), costumed revellers could be seen partying on the van's roof.
Sure, photos of the 'float' quickly made it online and were angrily passed round within 12 hours of it being spotted in front of the Nadur Parish Church. By today morning, it even made it to parliamentary secretaries' newsfeeds, with thoughts on the stunt being as divided as ever.
But somehow, the fact that a group of young people felt like they should dedicate a substantial chunk of their time to actually prepare this thing speaks volumes of the current climate we're trying to navigate. And whether you think the van represented a tasteless but harmless joke or an omen of a hopeless and emotionless country, one important fact still remains, extending far beyond a couple of hours of drunken revelry on Malta's sister island.
Mental health and suicide are one of Malta's biggest and most undisputed taboo topics. Not enough people are willing to bring up mental health in a discussion to find a way forward, and the people who do bring it up seem to be bent on either shitting on it or trivialising it. It's also way easier to laugh at mental illness because so few victims talk about it. While visible diseases like cancer force victims to speak out, mental illness goes under the radar most of the time. And that definitely won't help it become a national issue any time soon.
Eight days ago, a teenager who had admitted himself into Mount Carmel managed to escape the mental hospital through a bathroom window 24 hours later. He travelled to Buġibba and was found dead in a hotel room. And yet, even with that one case alone, another group of Maltese youths felt like going out to celebrate Carnival in a van that read Mount Carmel Taxi was still a pretty good idea.
What's even more worrying, however, is the amount of outrage each story generated. "A guy escaped from Mount Carmel and was found dead the day after and no one batted an eyelid," Franco Debono said on Facebook last night. "Photos of Mount Carmel flooding make it to social media, and no one batted an eyelid. Now, after a (inappropriate) comment on a rusty van as part of Carnival's satire, it suddenly feels like the end of the world."
The last time a news story related to mental health generated such an outcry was when Christabelle, fresh off her Malta Eurovision Song winner, was appointed Special Ambassador for Mental Health of the President's Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society. Days after a teenager fell through the net, people were more concerned about whether a Eurovision singer deserved a comparably inconsequential title for a song dealing with the 'taboo' of speaking about mental health.
Like most controversies which quickly light social media up, this latest one from Nadur will probably die down in a couple of hours' time. People will forget, most likely jumping on to the next thing to decry. Even right now, others have already called out those who have so vehemently stood their ground against the van, saying it's another prime example of an overly sensitive population. But the only people who'll most likely still feel the same come tomorrow are the people who need help the most. The people who need more robust mental health services in this country. Those who are crying out for help, even if their voices are muted amidst 21st century daily life.
There are so many great organisations looking after Malta's mental health today, with dozens of people ready 24/7 to support or just listen. Yet not enough people seem to be ready to talk about something that can have such devastating effects on them or their loved ones. And while hundreds rose to the occasion to condemn last Saturday's sight in the Nadur square, there's at least one positive (and probably unintended) result that came out of all this.
Amidst the flurry of back-and-forth online disputes, we are finally, to some degree, talking about mental health in Malta, and what that really means. The fact that it had to take a tasteless message scribbled on a rusty van during spontaneous Carnival celebrations or a Eurovision singer being appointed Special Ambassador for Mental Health to get us talking about mental health is sad, but now that the conversation has started, let's not be too quick to dismiss it all over again.
All of this has only proved that there's still a long way to go until this country can boast a truly robust mental health atmosphere, and the first step to getting there is generating frequent - and constructive - discussions.