PRESS RELEASE BY THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT: Opening speech by the President of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, at the Betapsi Addiction 360 Conference, 2017

Good Morning.

I am very pleased to attend, once again, your annual 360 Conference.

Let me take a moment to congratulate Betapsi, the Psychological Students’ Association of the University of Malta, and all the speakers and facilitators that will contribute to this important annual conference.

I must commend your active participation during this conference, which will definitely, further strengthen, a culture of research and good practice in our country.

Since last year’s conference, a lot has changed. A great deal has happened in many countries around the world. Countries we once believed were strongholds of democracy have begun to enact policies and legislation which question the commitment of certain politicians, to universal human rights and fundamental freedoms.

There are places in the world where conflict and precarity are escalating in unprecedented ways.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of human movement, which has been part of the history of humanity for millennia, is being hijacked by the rhetoric of populists and demagogues.

Furthermore, the effects of climate change are contributing to massive environmental changes around our world.

The unjust distribution of wealth, which gives prosperity to the few at the expense of the rest, is increasing social tension across our societies. However, conferences such as these, organised by students, give me hope for the future.

Your active engagement with the social concerns of today will, I am sure, create a positive change for the future of our country and our world.

I would also like to congratulate you for choosing to focus on multidisciplinary approaches. It is so necessary to bring diverse disciplines in synergy to address the needs of different aspects of academic and professional life.

This multidisciplinary approach ensures closer collaboration throughout the relevant academic and professional sectors, while, at the same time, it enhances the knowledge of everyone, gained in one field, through sharing.

This approach also ensures the sustainable development of the much-needed psycho-social sector in our country. All this will significantly contribute to a greater culture of solidarity, peace, and wellbeing in our islands.

In this way, our society will definitely become more resilient.

Our educational institutions will become stronger and more relevant when we work in synergy on the most pressing social, cultural, economic, and political concerns of contemporary life.

As psycho-social students and professionals, I urge you to continue, creatively and courageously, to explore the concerns faced by vulnerable people, families, and communities within our islands. Please do continue to come forward, to work in synergy, and to make your voices heard for all the people who need your support.

Today’s conference is another opportunity to share your expertise, and to foster new partnerships that strengthen your mission, to achieve the objectives of inclusion, of participation, and of social justice.

For this reason, I am pleased to note that you have selected “Addiction” as the topic of your conference today.

Through my experience working with people for many years, I have seen that addiction is a complex and multifaceted reality, faced by many individuals during their journey through life.

Addiction does not always manifest itself in obvious ways. Addiction manifests itself in different ways that are sometimes difficult to discern.

Addiction affects people differently, and impacts people’s lives very differently, too.

My most recent experience, working with people with addictions, was earlier this week on a visit to the Caritas shelters at San Blas. Dozens of people shared their narratives with me, talking about their experiences and aspirations.

The first concern of many women I met was the wellbeing of their children; men and women talked about the stress of being disowned by their families; and they all talked about their hope for a better life.

My experience also showed me how difficult it is for people living with addiction to take that essential step to reach out for help, and to make a practical and proactive change.

Addiction, simply put, is anything and everything that shifts our focus away from the path of wellbeing, with far-reaching implications for our loved ones, our communities, and society at large.

Addiction means that we have been dangerously trapped, by things which damage our lives.

This may happen as a result of our own actions or, from my experience working with people, as a result of oppressive life circumstances and inequalities that unfortunately operate within our status quo.

I believe that during this conference you must discuss the problems that are underlying the dangerous addictions, which trouble our society.

To further stimulate your thoughts, I would like to pose, some questions:

How can we all come together to identify solutions, which will promote greater justice?

How can we educate our young people in the values that strengthen society?

How can we do more to accompany people in difficulty, by providing support and hope for the future?

Very often, discourse about addiction centres on what it means to be an addict.

Very often too, we discuss the ways that addiction controls a person’s mind, and the ways that addicts self-medicate, with drugs or alcohol, to dull their pain.

Many a time, popular discourse centres on attempts to shift the blame of addiction onto the addict. Too many people describe addicts as lazy or lacking in willpower, and of being selfish for inflicting their addictions on the rest of society.

The discourse that surrounds addicts and their culpability is similar to the dangerous discourse that is sometimes used for the poor, and the causes of poverty.

Unfortunately, society can be judgemental and unfair. There is a prevailing danger, in contemporary society, to push the addict, the poor, and the vulnerable to the edge of our communities, and outside our circles of care.

It is easy to think that such individuals are not like us, but all it takes is one debilitating disease, the loss of a job, or a serious experience of mental illness to begin a process that ultimately leads to precarity and its attendant risks.

Unfortunately, the injustices which are built into our status quo, further contribute to a pervasive culture of inequality. While some people are able to change their circumstances, many are not. We should not take it for granted that this means they did not try hard enough or that they have weak characters.

To me, it means that great obstacles were stacked against them, and some of them were unable to overcome those obstacles.

Some people make judgemental claims, that addicts should stop their addictive behaviour before it gets out of control.

However, allow me to quote the American Institute on Drug Abuse, and I quote; “When drug abuse takes over, a person’s ability to exert self control can become seriously impaired. Brain imaging studies from drug-addicted individuals show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning and memory, and behaviour control. Scientists believe that these changes alter the way the brain works, and may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviours of addiction.” End quote.

This means that taking drugs damages a person’s brain, which makes it even more difficult to create the necessary change to overcome the powerful pull of addiction.

According to the latest data from the European Union Drug Report, Malta still has one of the highest indicators for high-risk opiates, mainly heroine, in the European Union.

Furthermore, important indicators gathered by the Centre for Freedom from Addictions, within the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, show that we must, as a country, do more to address the risks of “drug driving” in Malta. This means that more people are using drugs, or combining drugs and alcohol, when driving in our country.

This research by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, is being distributed to you for your information, and further deliberation.

Other upcoming addictions, which need close monitoring as stated by the latest edition of ESPAD in 2016; are internet use, gaming and gambling.

This report states, “With the internet now an integral part of daily life, ‘the development of patterns of addictive use among children and adolescents needs to be closely monitored and investigated’. Malta’s situation in this regard, as recorded by ESPAD, states that, on average, boys spend 5.9 days on the internet weekly, whilst girls spend 6.3 days on the internet.

A research conducted by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, and which is also being distributed, gives further insight to the local scenario.

We need to secure the active participation of all stakeholders, including national authorities, communities, and civil society, to continue creating the relevant changes to update our legislation and our policies, and their implementation.

I appeal to you, as students and professionals in the sector, that society benefits if we tackle the problems of addiction in a sensitive way, and ensure a continuous process of synergy.

Working in synergy, will not only improve the quality of life of affected individuals struggling with addiction, but will also provide more holistic support to address the negative impacts of addiction on families and communities.

Let me conclude by saying that I hope you shall continue, throughout this conference and beyond, to work towards the greater good of society, together.

I urge you to continue, throughout your academic and professional lives, to dedicate yourselves to the empowerment of the vulnerable, and to keep promoting a powerful and effective commitment to solidarity, to peace, and to wellbeing across our Maltese Islands.

Thank you.

Source: Government of Malta