Northern Ireland

Platform: Proper investment needed to help improve mental health services for the better across Northern Ireland

The LGA, backed by the Samaritans, is urging the Government to use the spring budget to extend funding for suicide prevention projects
(Alamy Stock Photo)

Poor mental health is a very significant issue in Northern Ireland with around one in five adults having a mental illness, at any one time.

Now the newly formed power-sharing government in place at the assembly will hopefully offer an ideal opportunity to improve mental health services for the better.

Over the years we’ve seen great progress on looking after people’s wellbeing. But sadly, some people still go on to develop a mental health condition – and for some - it can be severe.

And as psychiatrists, we know how important it is to stand up for our patients and advocate for their voices to be heard.

But we currently have a workforce crisis on our hands - which makes things extremely difficult.

Recent College research which looked at four out of the five Trusts revealed 1 in 4 consultant psychiatrist posts are currently vacant or unfilled.

This is bad news for our specialist mental health services as well as for the many people from all age groups and walks of life who we treat every day and help get better.

It takes around 13 years to train as a psychiatrist while some consultants leave the service to take up retirement. This of course leaves a gap in service provision.

Currently, we don’t have the data on adult mental health services, but we do know that waiting lists for children and young people are growing.

Dr Richard Wilson
Dr Richard Wilson

Just this week the Department of Health released their quarterly CAMHS figures which revealed 53% of children on mental health waiting lists are not being assessed within the target time.

At the end of last year, there were 2,095 on waiting lists in Northern Ireland, of which 1,104 were waiting for more than nine weeks.

As the quarterly figures are published regularly this year, we’ll be monitoring these closely to see if the statistics have improved in any way.

This is because there is a direct correlation between workforce pressures and how this affects our vital services and the time we can provide for our patients.

Our psychiatrists in Northern Ireland will also be looking to work closely with the new health minister Robin Swann, to look at how we solve the workforce problem in the hope that services can be improved.

He’s already successfully advocated for perinatal mental health and now we hope he can make progress on other desperately needed services.

In 2022, we ran a LucidTalk public poll of more than 3,000 people across Northern Ireland which revealed four out of five people believe mental health services do need more funding.

The same percentage (84%) also thought demand for treatment is set to increase in the future.

It’s clear cash also needs to be injected into early intervention and rehabilitation services. It would be great to see patients get help sooner without being on waiting lists.

The good news is that all my colleagues working in mental health, can be firmly part of the solution. But only if we get the right investment and commitment from our new decision-makers.

Mental health is an important topic to the public and working in a system where there is a huge gap between mental health and physical health isn’t ideal either.

Specialist services which most people take for granted in physical healthcare is something we’re still fighting for.

We very much hope to address these issues with the minister going forward and welcome him back to the health portfolio.

We will continue to fight for our patients, their families and loved ones – because after all there is no health without mental health.

:: Dr Richard Wilson is a consultant psychiatrist and chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists NI.