Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that affects reality perception, but studies suggest that individuals with it tend to have superior creative skills. Art therapy is used to address negative aspects of the disorder and may help diagnose it. Art can serve as an outlet to express what cannot be described in words, and its content can vary significantly between those with the disorder and healthy individuals.Continue reading
Modern Fashion from Ancient Pottery
How historic pottery sherds outlived their makers and inspired a contemporary artist.Continue reading
Aristotle’s Nymphomaniac Ethics
The first in our new THINK Oddities series, where we take a look at the many odd things that dot history! And what better way to start than with the story of Aristotle playing sub?Continue reading
Will NFTs live up to their potential?
You might have stumbled across the phrase ‘NFT’, but what on earth are they? THINK takes a look at NFTs, where they came from, and what they’re all about.Continue reading
Such Stuff as Worlds are Made On
What would remain of our once-great civilization if humanity went extinct? Such Stuff as Worlds are Made On explores these themes at Spazju Kreattiv.Continue reading
Commissioned over half a millennium ago, Antonello Gagini’s Madonna and Child has been silently standing tall in a Franciscan church in Rabat for the past five centuries. Little was known about the Renaissance sculpture, but a recent study is tracing the statue’s history. Caroline Curmi speaks to art historian Dr Charlene Vella and University of Malta student Jamie Farrugia about their findings.Continue reading
Creativity in a concrete jungle
Surrounded by ever-changing environments, it is crucial to take the time to pause and reflect. That’s exactly what Maltese-French artist Laura Besançon does in her exhibition Playful Futures — and she’s inviting you to play along. The exhibition attempts to refresh our perspectives on the changing contexts that are beyond our control.Continue reading
The pandemic did not ‘undo’ our exhibition
As 35 University of Malta students prepared to showcase their dissertation projects in an exhibition at Junior College, restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 turned their plans upside down overnight. Yet the exhibition, titled Ctrl Z, is still taking place, having moved to where people are – online.Continue reading
Busting out of the box
Aesthetic physician and artistic consultant Dr Joanna Delia traces her journey from medical student to successful business owner, telling Teodor Reljić that her experience at the University of Malta helped her resist excessive industry specialisation.
Modern life is rigidly compartmentalised. Perhaps this is more true of the West than anywhere else, where the materialist, rationalist models that have aided efficiency and technological advancement also require us to absorb vast amounts of knowledge early on, and specialise later.
Many educational systems reflect this tendency and the Maltese model is no exception. From a very young age, exams come in thick and fast, and cramming to pass them replaces a more holistic education.
Dr Joanna Delia is not a fan of the word ‘holistic’—preferring the term ‘polyhedral’ for reasons that will be explained later—and has enjoyed a career trajectory that has flouted excessive specialisation. A doctor turned aesthetic physician with an interest in the world of contemporary art, Delia’s journey is an affront to such restrictive notions.
While she assures me that her own time at the University of Malta (UM) was nothing short of amazing, in recounting the roots of her intellectual curiosity, she is compelled to go even further back.
‘Like every excited little girl, my dreams used to alternate and metamorph somewhere between wanting to be a writer like Emily Brontë or Virginia Woolf and a scientist who would make incredible discoveries and change the world like Marie Curie,’ Delia recalls. ‘I also wanted to be a doctor who would cure people in war-torn countries, yet fantasised about being Alma Mahler or a young Chanel surrounded by philosophers, drenched in fine clothes and surrounded by white rose bouquets…’
Delia recounts this awareness that we’re shaped to view these inclinations as contradictory. But for her, the intuitive desire to learn about and closely observe scientific phenomena matched the heights of aesthetic appreciation.
Vella’s own student enthusiasm did not come as immediately as all that, however. While she is now secure in her three-pronged role as writer, performer, and translator (also acknowledging her former role as a lecturer), forging an early path as a student meant first squinting through the fog.
‘I just loved learning the science subjects… figuring out protein synthesis and DNA replication literally made me feel giddy, light headed, downright euphoric! I was a real geek,’ Delia says with disarming self-deprecation. ‘To me, it was just the same as reading an incredible work of literature or staring at a work of contemporary art alone in one of the silent, perfectly lit halls of a museum.’
Given this internal push-pull across various disciplines, Delia confesses that in terms of pursuing the later strands of her formal education, she ‘floated into medical school’ without feeling the need to strategise things much further. It was only upon graduation that the realities of being slotted into a specialised discipline dawned on her with an ominous pall.
‘The day I graduated I felt a suffocating feeling: the thought that I had somehow sealed my fate,’ Delia says, though the sense of regret which followed did not linger for much longer.
‘Looking at one’s future through a tunnel vision perspective based on the imaginary restrictions of one’s degree is just that a self-imposed illusion,’ Delia observes.
Her University years were active and inspiring, with Delia having happily taken on extra-curricular activities and also quietly rebelled against the notion of boxed-in specialised disciplines.
University and beyond
‘University was amazing! I would repeat those years ten times over,’ Delia unapologetically enthuses. Though she does acknowledge that the Medicine course was challenging to begin with—citing the ‘competition among students’ as an additional factor—she looks back on both her time there, and her association with the UM’s Medical School, with immense pride.
‘My lecturers were charismatic and experts in their field, which of course garners respect and made us feel honoured to be part of that system,’ Delia says, while also recalling her involvement in additional campus activities.
‘I was the chair of the environmental committee at KSU and served two terms as the Officer for the Sub-Committee on Refugees and Peace within MMSA. I loved my time on campus, and encourage all students to participate in campus affairs. We never stopped organising fairs, events, fundraisers, workshops, and outreach programmes with the community…’
Hinting at an essential discomfort with the idea of overbearing specialisation, Delia believes ‘the Maltese education system does not proactively encourage sharing knowledge’, but also notes that she did find hope, solidarity, and inspiration among her peers, from various faculties.’ I socialised with students from the architecture department, and attended their workshop parties. I was invited to history of art lectures and tours. I organised panel discussions to reduce car [use] on campus and lobby for [a] paperless [campus],’ Delia says. All these activities contributed to ‘a feeling of a hopeful future’.
Adjacent to Delia’s academic efforts were her course-related travels abroad, which contributed to expanding her horizons. ‘I did internships in Rio De Janeiro and travelled to India and Nepal through the Malta Medical Students’ Association (MMSA), both of which were incredible experiences.’ During this time, she gained a keener interest in art.
‘My sister was studying history of art and eventually read for a Ph.D. in Museology. I followed her as closely as I could; her subjects fascinated me and a lot of her excitement about art rubbed off on me…’
But first, her early medical career needed seeing to. Delia admits that medical students in Malta are somewhat privileged since they enjoy a relatively smooth changeover from academic to professional life. However, the change happens very rapidly.
‘Young doctors in Malta have the advantage of an almost flawless transition into a job. This also turns out to be the toughest time in your life, but at least there there is a continuity of support at the start of your profession,’ Delia says, citing the diligence and discipline instilled into her and her peers by their University tutors and lecturers. This rigour was crucial to ensure that those early years went on as smoothly as possible.
Pausing to reflect, Delia feels compelled to add that a culture that leaves more breathing room for exploration and enquiry could only be beneficial for the future of Maltese medicine. ‘I wish we had a stronger culture of research and publication in Malta. We need to somehow find time for it as it will not only improve the reputation of the institution but also nurture us as students, alumni, and professionals, and keep us on our toes,’ Delia says, adding that these ideas reflect the same culture of hard work that her course promoted, which rewards diligence and depth. ‘I believe in constantly keeping astride with knowledge by reading publications and actively pursuing ‘continued medical education’. I wish that the institution instilled more of this into its alumni,’ Delia muses.
This approach of constant enquiry arguably gave Delia a fount of knowledge and inspiration to draw from when she found herself at a forking road in her medical career.
”After a few years of working at the general hospital, I was lucky enough to be chosen to pursue some level of surgical training, but by that point I had realised that the life of a surgeon was not for me…’
This was an ‘extremely tough decision’, with regret once again raising its ugly head. ‘However, the 80-hour weeks, and above all the realisation that my professional life would be all about facing and treating ill and dying people, forced me to make a decision to leave the hospital,’ Delia says.
This pushed Delia to explore other careers, and she now juggles her love of both medicine and aesthetics in a sustainable way.
‘After I stopped working as a hospital doctor, there were too many things I was hungry to explore – one of them was medical aesthetics. I started pursuing training in London and Paris, and essentially spent years of salary training with the best doctors I could find.’
After working at a reputable local clinic, Delia finally managed to go at it independently, opening up her own place.
‘It was nothing short of a dream come true. I had to search hard within myself and build up entrepreneurial and management skills. I learnt the hard way sometimes, business-wise, but I was also fortunate to find help from my friends who excel in other fields like marketing, photography and architecture, to help me build my brand and clinic,’ Delia recalls.
In the end, her resistance to rigid specialisation helped her to open a thriving business called Med-Aesthetic Clinic People & Skin. She couples this work to her position as head of the Advisory Board at the newly-opened Valletta Contemporary, a boutique showcase for local and international contemporary art run by artist and architect Norbert Francis Attard.
Which brings her story back to a ‘polyhedral’ conception of the world.
‘I believe everything in life is polyhedral. I prefer polyhedral to ‘holistic’. Every square, or rather, every cube we think we’re trapped in, can be pushed out and reconfigured to welcome other disciplines. I don’t believe any of us purposely split the two fields, but I believe we don’t allocate enough time to explore all the wonders we could discover if we used both their lenses to analyse the world. After all, even Einstein believed that the most important thing in science is creativity…’
Art for the mind
How can we use art to address mental health stigma? Dr Alexei Sammut writes about the art book Living with Mental Illness and the accompanying exhibition, which are his contributions to strengthen the discourse on mental health in Malta.
Declining mental health is a global burden. Anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are on the increase. Current estimates from the World Health Organization report that one in every four of us will experience some form of mental health challenge during their lifetime. By 2020, these figures are expected to double. And while support services do exist, their accessibility can be difficult.
There is no one explanation for this. The issue is complex and multifaceted. A lack of information on such services is a major contributing factor, however, stigma continues to be the main reason people refrain from seeking support and advice. Just a decade ago, discussing depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide in Maltese public fora was unimaginable. And while things have improved—social media provides plenty of evidence—we cannot become complacent.
As part of my PhD, I looked into the attitudes of Maltese nurses and midwives towards mental illness. As people working in caring professions within medical settings, they are on the front lines of community health, seeing people from all walks of life, day in day out.
What I found was that while local nurses and midwives hold a positive attitude towards individuals with a mental illness, continued education, public engagement, and mental health literacy promotion are imperative.
Nurses and midwives who followed specific mental health nursing training held the highest positive attitudinal scores. This finding highlights the important correlation between education and mental health literacy to the attitudes towards those with a mental health condition. Without adequate mental health literacy, stigmatising attitudes will prevail, and people will not receive the care they need.
With this knowledge in hand, I wanted to raise awareness around mental health. To do this, I combined my goal with my love for art, collaborating with local artist Anthony Calleja to explore the lived experiences of living with mental illness.
Calleja produced 18 works of art, all of them depicting mental illness based on first hand accounts from people living with the diseases. The idea was to increase awareness and generate discussion without the need for text. Visual art allows for nuanced personal interpretation, empowering the individual to reflect and absorb the messages within the art they are viewing. People use metaphors to relate to their life situations, especially when things become difficult to explain. Like metaphors, art can be used to express things that cannot be stated in words. Art can be a therapeutic medium that helps people reach out. But this was not all we planned to do with the initiative.
Calleja’s pieces were collocated into a book titled Living with Mental Illness. The publication was launched at an exhibition of the original works. On the night, I conducted a study through questionnaires investigating people’s own interpretations of the works and the emotions they conveyed.
Although data analysis is still at a preliminary stage, findings seem to agree with the national survey on health literacy carried out in 2014 by the Maltese National Statistics Office on behalf of the Office of the Commissioner of Mental Health. In 2014, research showed that 42.5% of the Maltese population have a problematic level of health literacy. This further highlights the importance of education and health promotion campaigns.
We’ve all heard someone around us say that mental health is as important as physical health, and we need to act on that adage. We cannot shy away from giving it the attention it deserves. Now is the time to speak out and collaborate as a collective. We need to listen closely to those among us who are struggling, especially to those who use our community’s mental health services. Only they can help us revamp and address the challenges that lie ahead.