Northern Ireland news

Mental health service shortages putting vulnerable patients at risk, campaigner warns

Paul McCusker has warned of the pressures in mental health services in a letter to the Chief Medical Officer. He is pictured outside the Mater Hospital in North Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell.
Seanín Graham

WORKFORCE pressures and delays in mental health services across the Belfast health trust are putting suicidal patients at risk, a high-profile campaigner has warned NHS bosses.

Councillor Paul McCusker, who is also a healthcare professional, has written to the north's most senior doctor to outline specific concerns about the impact of nursing shortages and cuts to mental health beds in coming weeks.

His correspondence to Dr Michael McBride, who is Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for Northern Ireland, follows a meeting he held with trust officials last week in which he probed the reduction of psychiatric beds following their transfer from the Mater hospital in the north of the city to Belfast City hospital next month.

Read More: Police used as 'last resort' for mentally ill patients due to lack of NHS crisis services

Mr McCusker (33) who worked in Mater from his late teens in its acute mental inpatient unit - known locally as 'Flat 10' - said that he while he accepted the transfer was required due to the age of the building, he was concerned that the necessary care wasn't available in the community for seriously ill patients.

Other major concerns highlighted in his letter to the CMO include:

- Nursing shortages have resulted in some social workers carrying out assessments on mental health patients

- 'Knock on' effect of shortages among consultant psychiatrists with patients "waiting longer" and "often not getting comprehensive assessment from a doctor"

- Breaches of a four hour target for mentally ill patients seeking emergency A&E care, with more than 100 patients facing delays in March

The north Belfast councillor told the Irish News he felt compelled to outline his concerns to the CMO about the mental health sector.

He sent the letter earlier this week.

"In my constituency office in north Belfast we are getting at least 20 calls on a weekly basis for those struggling and who are experiencing delays in getting help. This is nothing to do with the staff on the ground who are doing their best and feeling the pressure. I also realise there are problems with recruitment," he said.

Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride

"It's just that services have become so disjointed and this is putting more people at risk."

The healthcare worker suggests in his letter that the Department of Health should examine the need for a dedicated "mental health assessment centre".

"This should be for patients who are presenting in crisis and are unwell. They will be assessed through one centre and then referred to the appropriate service rather than presenting to A&E hospital departments which is the wrong environment and often it can exacerbate things," he added.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Belfast trust last night said it had received "additional investment" to improve hospital waiting times.

"In addition there are a range of other services for people experiencing crisis including GP Services, Lifeline, Community and Voluntary Groups and the Trust is currently working in partnership with Inspire on a pilot to provide crisis de-escalation at weekends," he said.

He added that the use of social workers to assess patients is "entirely appropriate" as they are part of mental health teams.

"Belfast trust, like all trusts in Northern Ireland, are finding it difficult to recruit mental health nurses. There are not enough new registrants leaving universities," he said.

"Although mental health services are under significant pressures there are currently no plans to reduce services."

And he said the decision to reduce a "small number of beds" was taken following a public consultation.

"The rationale for this was that there would be an increase in the provision of acute home treatment in Belfast and this has been put in place. The number of beds is in line with national recommendations."

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