Death by suicide

▪️ Death by suicide ▪️ The three clowns ▪️ Keeping the Germans down

Some people, a few of whom should know better, have been talking about a pandemic of suicides, linking it with increased mental health problems.  A flurry of posts on the social media by the usual uninformed brigade have made it seem that this is a daily occurrence.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Malta has one of the lowest rates in the EU.

The Health Minister, Jo Etienne Abela, said in Parliament the other day that in 2023 there were 27 suicides.  This would be a rate of 5.05 per 10,000 people.  It is definitely a considerable increase of 27 percent on the 2020 figure of 3.98 and higher than the previous peak of 4.49 in 2011.   

If it’s any consolation, the figures are substantially lower than the EU average. The latest EU figures available relate to 2020, when the average was 10.93   ̶  almost triple that of Malta.  In 2011, the EU average was 12.39   ̶   more than two-and-a-half times Malta’s.

Researcher Melvyn Camilleri, who wrote his doctorate thesis on this matter in 2021, highlights the fact that a 20-year record shows that death by suicide peaks in March worldwide, but Malta sees another spike in August, at the height of summer and festivities.  The hot climate and the constant barrage of murtali are probably a factor in driving people to take their lives.

Suicide is mostly still a taboo subject, but the social media are fast breaking down that wall of silence.   The suicides committed by 24-year-old Mqabba FC goalkeeper Kurt Polidano and the 27-year-old artist Josef Grech have brought the mental health issue into the public domain.

Kurt Polidano and Josef Grech

“The pain and loss that such deaths bring to the immediate family and friends is immeasurable,” the Malta Chamber of Psychologists (MCP) said in a statement some time ago. “The absence is deeply felt, the memories linger, and so much remains unsaid. The profound impact that these tragic events have on the collective well-being must be acknowledged.”

The MCP appealed to people struggling with mental health issues to reach out. “Speak to friends, family, mental health professionals. Ask for help and never lose hope. Your pain matters. Your life matters. Do not walk this journey alone, and remember it is oftentimes the depression itself which causes you to feel this intense existential loneliness. In reaching out, you will be doing the bravest thing that you have ever done.”

The academic and broadcaster Andrew Azzopardi has often insisted that mental health should become a fully-fledged ministerial portfolio.  I think that increasing the number of ministers is just a sop to public opinion.  One does not set up a new ministry to cover each and every crisis that occurs in society, even if the academician believes  ̶  without any hard evidence   ̶   that up to 30% of suicidies in Malta might be unreported.  He is on more solid ground when he attributes the rise to problems of loneliness, anxiety, or impacted lives from a decreasing quality of life and financial hardship. 

Adele Muscat, a sports psychologist and university lecturer, acknowledges that the Werther effect   ̶   the phenomenon where exposure to suicide-related media coverage could lead to a copycat increase in suicide rates   ̶   could be at play.  But she also refers to the Papageno effect – named after the lovesick character in Mozart’s opera ‘The Magic Flute’, who is turned away from suicide at the eleventh hour – that can have either a positive, or negative effect, on those in crisis depending on the way the media reports on suicide. 

Five years ago, notifications of 15% of acute involuntary admissions at Mater Dei mentioned either a suicide attempt or intent or deliberate self-harm alongside the disease category indicated as the primary diagnostic reason for admission. This is not a suicide incidence statistic; it reflects the number of times that suicide or suicidality were mentioned in admission documentation.

Males and persons aged between 30 and 44 years are more commonly represented when compared to data for all involuntary admissions. Maltese citizens and persons coming from non-EU very highly developed or highly developed countries were more frequently represented. Mood disorders were the most commonly-represented disease category, at double the frequency when compared to all admitted cases. Anxiety related disorders, whilst being the second most common disease category, would seem to carry an even higher risk.

The current publicity campaign is drawing people’s attention to the help they can find when in crisis.  The Accident and Emergency department at Mater Dei Hospital or Primary Health Department can assist people passing through difficult moments and contemplating suicide, as well as survivors of these tragic events, in seeking help from Mental Health Service professionals. The services include Suicide Prevention, Outreach and Therapeutic (SPOT) services on 2122 8333, Victim Support Malta Supportline 179, and the Richmond Foundation on 1770.  Anonymous chats such as kellimni.com, Olli chat, or the Kriżi app are also an option.

The three clowns

I love the circus. Not the part where live animals are forced to do unnatural things, but when the clown comes out.  I am amused by his antics and laugh at his jokes.  But clowns have the misfortune of being misunderstood.  What most of the audience treat as jokes are, on the contrary, pearls of wisdom.  Another thing:  there are clowns and clowns.  The one I mentioned is the one who sets out to be a clown.  The other is the one who takes himself seriously but is still a clown   ̶   he just doesn’t wear the garb.

Ok, I’m speaking in riddles.  Let me make myself clearer.  The clown I am referring to is none other than Malta’s anti-money laundering watchdog; the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit (FIAU).  This particular clown is following in the steps of two other clowns: the Malta Financial Services Authority (MFSA) and the Competition Authority (MCCAA).  But why do I call such important institutions of the State as clowns?

Well, like the circus clown they put on a show.  They need to be seen as doing their job in making people and companies behave in accordance with the laws of the country.  But they are shorn of clothes of strength.  As a result, they impose fines and sanctions on the culprits when it is illegal to do so and which they cannot enforce, and they become the laughing stock of the country. 

Their “authority”, if you can call it that, was dealt another blow with the umpteenth judgment of a superior court which declared that the onerous fines issued by the FIAU were punitive and “quasi-criminal” since the companies concerned were denied the basic right of being tried by an independent and autonomous tribunal.

Now, this is not the first judgment of this sort against any of the three clowns.  Many companies have challenged the FIAU’s decisions and won.  In the latest case, the company concerned not only got the Court to annul the fine but also won €20,000 in compensation for breach of its rights.

Mr Justice Toni Abela said that “the court cannot understand by which stretch of the imagination the FIAU continues to argue that this fine was not punitive in nature.” The learned Judge had only to read an FIAU internal document which expressly states that “the fine should be punitive, act as a deterrent to non-compliance, and be significant enough to impact on the annual income.”  It is laughable to read that the clown argued the case against himself!

Meanwhile, what does the FIAU and the other two clowns do?  They simply plod on, issuing fines and penalties which they cannot enforce.  Naturally, this means that their deterrence is zilch and that companies can legitimately conclude that they can give the middle finger to the regulations and keep on infringing them.  Anybody with basic common sense would ask whether this makes sense.  The answer naturally is that it doesn’t.  But who cares?  The three clowns are happy to continue indulging in “convoluted, opaque, and byzantine” practices, as Mr Justice Abela called them.

Keeping the Germans down 

It has lately become fashionable in certain circles to bash the Germans. From its politics to its economy to its infrastructure, Germany has pretty much been described as the single biggest cause for the energy crisis in Europe and essentially a country in shambles that has no future and just had a lucky streak thanks to borrowed money that is now running out.

In the beginning, I thought the uptick in Germany bashing was a sort of “revenge” from the 2012-2016 era, when Germany used to be portrayed as a shining beacon of light in a sea of instability and decline, and now that things are kinda gloomy (as they are in the whole West) everyone is jumping on the hate train as a sort of “hahaha, look how perfect Deutschland has fallen”.

Now, I get it that inflation and energy prices don’t make you optimistic, that workers and farmers have grievances ranging from pay and conditions to cuts in agricultural subsidies and higher road tolls, that the country’s famed economic model appears to be faltering, that the head of Germany’s digital industries association has called the country a “failed state” in terms of digital government services, that building permits, operating licences and company registrations all take far longer to process than the EU average, that Europe’s powerhouse is struggling with a potent mix of short-term and deeper structural problems, that Germany’s national audit office has described the wholly state-owned rail network Deutsche Bahn as being in permanent crisis with debts of €30bn and punctuality levels at their lowest in eight years, that a divided and seemingly ineffectual government has prompted economists to talk of the “sick man of Europe”.

But isn’t that happening in most of the world?  It seems few people are willing to appreciate that, objectively speaking, there are very, very few countries that do better than Germany on most aspects. No, Germany doesn’t have bad salaries, neither does it have unpayable rents or crumbling infrastructure. So, to call an economy with high employment, a lot of job vacancies, and the best physical position of almost all major economies in the world ‘the sick man of Europe’ really does not fit.  Let us not forget that when Germany was last called that a quarter of a century ago, it bounced back and put all to shame.

Even in Malta, it seems that somebody is keen on bashing the Germans, though not for the malaise I have mentioned.  It concerns a supposed resurgence of a belligerent Germany wanting to rearm itself like Nazi Germany did in the 1930s. Referring to the recent talk of increased defence spending, EP candidate Clint Azzopardi Flores told  The Malta Business Weekly that “the Germans must be kept down. We do not afford to have them armed to their teeth. You can feel the 1930s nostalgia when they speak.”

I find the words about putting the Germans down and the conjunction with the Nazis quite offensive in respect of a country from which we could learn a thing or two across a wide spectrum of affairs. This apart from the fact that, if there is anyone who has dragged their feet on the European Commissions’ European Defence Industrial Strategy, it is the Germans.  On the contrary, in a non-paper circulated in Brussels together with France, Sweden, and Italy, Germany was sceptical about the Commission’s initiatives. Flores said the EPP’s demand for a new “arms race” is akin to what was being pushed for in the 1930s in Germany, before the Second World War. Really?  As far as I know, in 2022 the US and Russia spent 3.5% and 4.1% of their GDP on the military, compared with just 1.4% in Germany.  Poland spent 2.4% of its GDP, but I haven’t heard of anyone wanting to put the Poles down.  German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has affirmed his country’s commitment to spending 2% of GDP this year and over the long-term.  That doesn’t sound like an arms race to me. 

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