Mental Health Champion warns that departmental cuts will be ‘detrimental’ to mental health

On Mental Health Awareness Week, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, Mental Health Champion for NI speaks out about the negative impact that cuts across Department budgets, will have on the most vulnerable people and wider mental health.

Having spoken directly to the Secretary of State for NI, the Rt Honourable Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Head of the NI Civil Service, Dr Jayne Brady and Department of Education’s Permanent Secretary, Mark Browne, as well as writing this week to Department of Health’s Permanent Secretary, Peter May, Professor O’Neill worries that not enough is being done to protect those already struggling with poverty and mental health.

Professor O’Neill stressed in the series of meetings the need to ensure that funding for mental health services is protected, and highlighted the harm that the budget cuts which have been announced will have on NI’s most vulnerable populations. NI has higher levels of poverty than other regions, with 1 in 4 children here living in poverty, and the rates of poor mental health and suicide are worse in deprived areas, partly as a result of this.

Commenting on her recent meetings, Professor O’Neil said:

“I recognise the significant challenges that the Departments are faced with given the current budget allocation. However, cuts across all Government Departments will have a detrimental impact on the mental health of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland. The reality of poverty is that vulnerable people live in highly stressful circumstances where they are constantly struggling to make ends meet, and feed and clothe their families. Poverty both leads to, and is a consequence of, poor mental health. We are seeing reports of the cuts impacting on the services who provide vital support to prevent further illness, and disability, and ensure that people have employment and meaningful lives to support their wellbeing.”

“I now ask that decision makers do everything within their gift to ensure that mental health services are protected so that they can meet the additional needs arising from the cuts that have been announced.”

Professor O’Neill also highlighted at her meetings two areas of the Mental Health Strategy that needed to be prioritised urgent in order to improve mental health. Firstly, the plan for early intervention and prevention, which is Action One and Two of the Strategy, needs to be fully progressed as the initiatives within this plan will make a real difference in reducing the rates of mental ill health which is costing the NI economy £3.4 billion annually.

Secondly, workforce issues continue to thwart progress on the implementation of new services. The mental health workforce plan needs to be finalised and there is an urgent need to expand training places particularly in the Psychiatry and Psychology professions, so that people can access specialist mental health services and the Psychological Therapies that they would benefit from. A workforce plan for the Community and Voluntary Sector also needs to be delivered so that our most vulnerable can receive the treatment and care that they need.

Professor O’Neill added:

“I consistently hear from organisations in mental health that they are unable to find staff with the necessary training, skills and expertise to meet the needs of those presenting to services.”

“We must invest now in mental health services, to support and treat those who are currently suffering, and so that we can ensure future savings. I am convinced that spending now will lead to savings, and even more importantly, better outcomes for the region for years to come.”

Professor O'Neill spoke to UTV News about her recent meetings: