Sociologist, local councillor, activist from Malta

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Lonely Festive Season

Two recent news articles in the Times of Malta struck me for pointing out social problems that deserve more attention: loneliness and mental health. In one article, Mental Health Services chairman Anton Grech was quoted saying that dealing with depression or anxiety can get tougher during the festive period. Paradoxically, at a time when families and friends get together to celebrate, some people feel a greater sense of social isolation and loneliness.
In the other article, Caritas director Leonid Mackay referred to sociological studies which emphasised the loneliness experienced by a substantial number of elderly people in Malta.
Such media reports can help sensitise the public and policymakers to the importance of these issues. I feel this is particularly important when both loneliness and mental health are being elbowed out of Malta’s social policy debate.
This is not due to some conspiracy or some grand design but is an unintended consequence of the current wave of debates and social policies that attract more attention in the public sphere.
Policymakers and the press should go beyond current trendsetters and dig deeper in social realities that may not be so fancy and sensational but which may be equally ‘real’.
As sociologist Max Weber put it a century ago, it is important to understand the meanings that people give to their social world. And loneliness and mental health are two issues which deserve more understanding.
For example, it is important to understand that society is not only made up of the persons and identities whom we are accustomed to read about but also of a myriad of others who may be more susceptible to loneliness and mental health challenges.
These may include new pensioners unprepared to face a brave new world after decades of employment; foreigners without family or friends; persons anxious about the personal, family and social changes taking place around them; victims of bullying, racism, labelling, sexism and other forms of discrimination; people who don’t ‘fit in’, and persons who may not even be aware of their mental health situation.
Loneliness and mental health are being elbowed out of Malta’s social policy debate
The list can go on.
I use the term ‘persons’ consciously as I feel the sociological duty to emphasise that sometimes even those who are associated with strength and power may be weak, lonely and fragile and this may also include heterosexual men who are often portrayed as the opposite.
Policy making for gender equality needs to take account of this in the drive towards a more inclusive society.
Indeed, policy making should build upon success stories in other areas and try to mainstream issues such as loneliness and mental health. Both issues are often treated as taboos, for example when persons feel embarrassed to seek professional assistance or to speak up about their anxiety or loneliness.
But the taboo status was also the case in other areas such as LGBTIQ rights and Malta has really moved places in this regard.
Education, the media, politicians and civil society all have a role to play in the attempt to make such issues more visible. Some already do so and they deserve more support.
Loneliness and mental health can transverse ideological and partisan divides and can also be characterised by different forms of governance.
The latter can include the contribution of public, private and voluntary sectors as well as the empowering of persons through the ethic of the care of the self. The social media, schools, local councils and lifelong learning opportunities can enable the construction of stronger communities which are sensitised to such challenges.
In turn, disciplines such as sociology, linguistics, translation studies, psychology, psychiatry, social work and counselling are essential to have social professions who may work in such fields.
Perhaps a good new year’s resolution by stakeholders of Malta’s public sphere would be to look beyond trendy issues that grab most likes and sensational comments.
Best wishes to readers of the Times of Malta. May you experience a lovely new year.

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