In a report by UTV News, on average, 25 people a day in 2023 are presenting at Emergency Departments in Belfast experiencing emotional distress or mental health problems.
The figures obtained show that so far this year there have been 6,580 attendances at EDs in Belfast for these issues.
The figures cover the period from January 2023 to September 2023, and deal with the EDs at the Mater and Royal Victoria Hospitals.
The numbers of people presenting with these issues range in the period from a low of 641 in January, to a high of 835 people in August 2023.
The figures cover the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and indicate the scale of the challenge facing emergency care with patients experiencing this type of distress.
Speaking to UTV News, Professor Siobhan O'Neill said that the figures represented what we are seeing "across Northern Ireland that people are presenting with significant distress to emergency departments and it's not acceptable." She continued that "we need better services in the community so that people have somewhere to go whenever they are in distress, that they can get the help they need outside of that environment [Emergency Departments]."
Professor O'Neill also explained why emergency departments are the "wrong environment" for people in emotional or mental distress and discussed what alternative options are there:
"What we need is a very calm environment where people can receive therapeutic support and follow up support. Often what happens is that people are discharged and then signposted to services, and what we want to move towards is a system where they get follow up supports and where they can look at what caused that crisis and start to turn things around, so that they don't get back into that state again. Unfortunately a lot of those people will be presenting again and again because they aren't getting the right support or help."
"Well there are other alternatives available. We have Multi-Agency Triage teams in some parts of Northern Ireland where there's support on the person's door step, in the street almost, and that's really good. And we also have alternative spaces that are available, for example Crisis Cafe environments and other types of services. So there is an alternative to an Emergency Department but unfortunately, if a person's very acutely suicidal they might need that assessment in an emergency department so that's going to depend on what the individual's circumstances are."
When asked if their was a struggle in reforming mental health services, with the Mental Health Strategy, Professor O'Neill said:
"One of the actions in the actions in the Mental Health Strategy is the creation of a regional crisis intervention service that provides this sort of follow up care that's needed for people who are in suicidal crisis. Now that action has been progressed, we are now at the stage where we are starting to pilot elements of that action. Unfortunately we don't have enough money right now to do everything that is needed in that Strategy and that is the problem. So we have the plan to change things but we just need the investment so that we can fast track that plan and get some progress."
"We do need to invest in early intervention and prevention as well and there are a number of initiatives that are happening to try and ensure that people get the right source of help at an earlier stage but ultimately we do need that leadership. We do need investment in the Mental Health Strategy and we need to look at creative ways of finding that money if it's not readily available. This the one part of health where we do have a plan to transform things we just need action now and resources."