“Dear mum, I’m in a bed in Mount Carmel Hospital. I don’t know if they’ll wake me up tomorrow, but I love you.” That’s what I wrote in my journal the first night I spent in Mount Carmel.
From the outside, the psychiatric hospital looks alright. Tranquil and pleasant, even. Upon entry, you’ll find a roundabout with a fountain, well-kept flowers and bushes, and a decent building. But what’s behind this façade tells a whole different story.
Mount Carmel was founded as a “Lunatic Asylum” in 1861. According to their website, “back then, the main aim of the hospital was to keep psychiatric patients away from society rather than support them towards reintegration in the community.” Having been inside, it doesn’t feel like much has changed.
Granted, I was having a psychotic episode. I wasn’t sure where I was, or why I was there. It didn’t help that, throughout the eight days I spent inside, I was never told about my condition. All I knew was that I was in a sketchy building that seemed to come straight out of a horror film, with patients that looked more dead than alive.
On arrival, I was told to hand in my phone and my valuable items. I was by myself and slightly hesitant when a staff member told me: “It’s safer ta, inside it might get stolen.” That was the first clue that this might be more of a prison than a hospital. I handed in my valuables and was assigned a bed in the general admission ward, which is the ward patients go to at first.
The general admission ward is, allegedly, the newest part of the hospital. There are separate sleeping dorms for men and women, but the dining and smoking areas are shared. It has the feeling of a primary school in 2002, with uplifting drawings and quotes on the walls. Wooden beds are nicely placed in dorms of eight.
At 7am, the bright lights are switched on and all patients have to wake up. You head to the showers, with old cabins and chipped floor tiles. The only time I had seen bathrooms looking like this was in history books about German concentration camps. Often, showers are shared and patients are to shower nude near each other.
Visitor hours are generous, from 9am to 11am and 3pm to 5pm. I was lucky to have visitors every single day - that’s not the norm for everyone. At 11.30am it’s lunchtime, which would often be warm food. Around noon you are allowed to rest. At 2.30pm, tea is served from a large, puckered kettle in plastic cups. Dinner was at 5pm and tea and coffee at 7.30pm.
Medication (or “treatment”) is passed around chaotically, either in little pillboxes or through nurses’ hands. Names are shouted through the corridors, hoping they’ll find the patient who is supposed to take these drugs. It was confusing, disorganised and overwhelming.
Halfway through my stay, I was transferred to Female Ward 1. My psychiatrist had noticed my fear of men, and there was an outside patio in the female ward. I had already been in the hospital for days and was transferred internally by a nurse, yet still had to strip naked for a drug check - which was frankly dehumanising.
In three words, it was hell. Whereas the general admission ward did somewhat resemble a psychiatric hospital, I was now convinced this had to be some sort of prison.
The common area was a dirty, depressing room with chairs lined up against the wall as if the patients are convicts. With few windows, there was no natural light. Two televisions displayed loud cartoons and the news.
I vividly remember a patient roaming around like a Roomba, walking into walls as if she was merely a ghost embodying a human being. Another lady would call her husband on a daily basis, shouting Maltese slurs that I will not repeat.
There was an outside patio: a small, square area demarcated by grey concrete walls. We were allowed to go for a smoke break of five minutes. Nurses would light the patients’ cigarettes inside, and the patients would slowly move outside. Needless to say, as a non-smoker, I didn’t get much fresh air.
The metal doors are heavy and slammed shut throughout the day. The doorbell is continuously rung by visitors and staff, a screeching sound that is still stuck in my mind. An old dog roams around, which was the last thing I expected in a hospital.
You don’t have the freedom to walk around as you wish. Most doors are locked at all times, and it wasn’t unusual for patients to aggressively bang on and scratch the doors.
There were few forms of therapy or entertainment. I got a box of chewed-on pencils to entertain myself with. On the day I was released, I was offered a yoga class. It was taught by a male instructor - exactly what my psychiatrist had tried to avoid for me in this female ward.
I am most grateful for the care I received from the proficient staff, though the doctors rarely dressed accordingly. It impresses me all the more that I was pulled out of the psychosis by a psychiatrist who would show up late and conduct our talks with his hands in his jacket’s pockets.
It was the caring staff and the right medication that effectively helped me out of the psychosis. The qualified psychiatrists and lovely nurses make up, as far as they can, for the dilapidated state the hospital is in.
But keep in mind that this hospital is for mental patients, that are often already in a confused or depressed state of mind. The last thing they need is a horror hospital that will remain with them in their nightmares.
Mount Carmel is anything but a place to heal. If you aren’t mentally ill to begin with, the conditions the hospital is in will certainly drive you mad.
Psychiatric care is in dire need of funding and transformation. It is crucial for Malta to leave the 1800s lunatic asylum in the past and provide psychiatric patients with the care they need and deserve.
Do you have a mental health experience worth sharing or have you stayed in Mount Carmel Hospital? Reach out to me - I'd be more than happy to have a chat.
This post was originally published on January 4th 2021 on SideStreet.