Northern Ireland news

Health committee chief queries rationale for withdrawing mental health support services from nurses

Chair of the Stormont health committee Colm Gildernew. Picture by PA Wire.
Seanín Graham

THE chair of the Stormont health committee has raised concerns about the withdrawal of psychological support services for NHS staff following a surge in nurses experiencing serious mental health problems.

Sinn Féin's Colm Gildernew was reacting to a nursing leader's warning that some ICU staff were experiencing suicidal feelings as they emerged from the pressures of the third pandemic wave.

In an interview in yesterday's Irish News, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) director Pat Cullen revealed that she had met with the first and deputy first ministers as well as Health Minister Robin to alert them to the scale of the crisis.

Ms Cullen read testimonies to the Stormont leaders from nurses "in despair" and said she had evidence that intensive care nurses in particular are "now more prone to self-harming and are actually exhibiting suicidal ideation".

The scrutiny committee chief said he was alarmed by the RCN accounts and the fact that specialist clinical support - which was available in the first wave - was no longer provided to staff during the more devastating surges over the past six months.

"I had raised concerns about this service withdrawal earlier in the year. It didn’t make any sense to me and I did query the rationale for that. It think it's counter-intuitive," he said.

"We do have a broad understanding we cannot create nurses overnight. However, we can do more to support the nurses we have who are in service and are so hard pressed.

Royal College of Nursing director Pat Cullen has warned of serious mental health problems among ICU nurses linked to pandemic pressures Picture by Hugh Russell.

"I think the committee is also aware that the retention of nurses is actually becoming as big a problem as the recruitment of them. We need to address the morale issues within the staff. For a long period of time they’ve been exposed to working above and beyond normal levels.

"There is also the issue that when staff start moving out of the immediate impact of this phase where the pressure starts to reduce, they may go off sick or decide to leave the profession. Many staff feel they just can’t cope with the expectation that is expected.

"That’s something of real concern given the nursing vacancy rate. We need to ensure we retain these very experienced staff."

With the north's health service almost 3,000 nurses short, the threat of fresh strike action has also emerged due to the stalling of 'safe staffing' legislation.

In January, a Department of Health pledge to implement a bill that would guarantee adequate staffing levels in the health service to meet patient need led to the suspension of a nursing strike.

Mr Gildernew said it was "very disappointing" the legislation hadn't been progressed. The norths' Chief Nursing Officer Charlotte McArdle confirmed this month it would not be passed during the Assembly's current mandate.

"My belief is that the health minister does need to sit down with the staff representatives and the unions and come up with a realistic timetable for moving that legislation forward," he added.

The Department of Health has confirmed it has now set up a programme to "enhance" current supports for ICU staff experiencing psychological problems.

In a statement, it confirmed a pilot is to be rolled out in the Belfast trust in the coming weeks and will be available to all ICU staff - professional and technical - who worked in intensive care "at any point from the beginning of the pandemic".

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