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Now is the time to plug the gap in mental health funding for Northern Ireland

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The Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, is calling for political representatives to put fully funding the Mental Health Strategy at the top of their agendas for this upcoming election.

 

A piecemeal approach to mental health is not acceptable.

Poor mental health costs the NI economy £3.4 billion every year, The Mental Health Strategy is a smart investment, says Professor O’Neill.

The conversation has started, and now more than ever, we are talking about our mental health, and there is wide recognition of the considerable suffering experienced by those with mental health difficulties. We are also having important discussions about how our government should spend our money. It is important that we also put the two together, and consider the economic cost of poor mental health, not only to the person who is struggling, but to the whole of society.

A new report by London School of Economics and Political Science and the Mental Health Foundation has calculated the economic cost of poor mental health in Northern Ireland to be a staggering £3.4 billion annually. To put this in perspective, the amount is just under half of the overall Health budget (around £6.5 billion), and just over a quarter of the annual block grant that NI receives from the UK government (around £12 billion). In comparison, we allocate around £150 million annually to mental health in the Department of Health.

“As we approach the election, I am calling for the NI population to demand that our political parties plug the gap in funding for mental health; and fund the Mental Health Strategy in full so that we can reduce the terrible suffering caused by mental illness and the economic impact of mental illness across society,” champions Professor O’Neill.

Why is mental illness so expensive?

Mental ill health is surprisingly common, especially in NI, where it is estimated that 19% of the adult population, and one in eight children and young people have emotional difficulties. The economic costs come from having reduced productivity in the workforce, and intangible costs caused by poor quality of life, exclusion and stigma, health and social care costs, and education costs. The figure can be described as a conservative under-estimate, because it did not include the costs of severe stress on workplace productivity, nor did it include the cost of addiction and substance use, or the physical health problems, which are more common among people with poor mental health. Almost a quarter (23%) of these costs are as a result of depression, 18% anxiety disorder and 17% bipolar disorder.

How do we reduce the costs of poor mental health?

Mental health is influenced by stress, pressure, and trauma; the environment within which a person lives; and the person’s ability to cope. The childhood years, and the relationship between infants and their caregivers are particularly important. Many of the factors that influence mental health can be modified, and there is mounting evidence that by intervening at an early stage we can prevent mental illness and much of the associated distress and suffering.

The Mental Health Foundation’s review team also looked at the types of interventions that are effective to reduce these costs; and prevention and early intervention came out on top. Their recommendations, based on the research evidence, include universal programmes, especially those which identify and support infants and parents; school programmes addressing bullying; physical activity; brief psychological interventions for adults at risk; workplace actions; reducing isolation in older people; reducing access to suicide methods; and help for people at risk of suicide.

Why is the Mental Health Strategy so important?

Northern Ireland’s 10-year Mental Health Strategy is a detailed plan from the Department of Health to address the high levels of mental illness here. Designed by professionals and experts by experience, it includes 35 actions across three themes. Many people are already aware that the Strategy includes the creation of a single Regional Mental Health Service, and the many necessary and urgent improvements to services that provide treatments for people with a mental illness. However less has been said about the actions which appear in Theme 1 of the Mental Health Strategy, Early Intervention and Prevention.

It is these actions that reflect the key cost effective, evidence based, actions identified in the Mental Health Foundation report. In other words, it is through the implementation of this part of the Strategy that we will get the most bang for our buck, and we will see a real reduction in the human and economic cost of these conditions. However, the Mental Health Champion is concerned that funding shortages may mean that this part of the Strategy gets left behind.

Accept nothing short of full implementation of the Mental Health Strategy

“Our failure to prevent and address mental ill health is costing us dearly, and the situation is getting worse,” affirms Professor O’Neill.

The proportion of people with a probable mental health problem rose to 27% in the year of the pandemic. Parental mental illness is affecting the next generation and if we do not act now, it will have an impact on their outcomes.

Investing in mental health not only reduces the levels of suffering across our society, but also makes good economic sense. The Mental Health Strategy is a strong plan which incorporates many of the prevention and early intervention activities which will save us money in the medium and long term.

In order to implement all the actions in full the Strategy requires £1.2 billion across ten years.

This represents a 34% increase in funding to this part of the Health budget. The funding uplift would bring us into line with the mental health spend per person in England, which is currently 31% higher than Northern Ireland. A piecemeal approach to mental health is not acceptable, this Strategy must be implemented in full.

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