Primary schools might be left without mental health programmes due to funding cuts, Mental Health Champion warns

Primary school kids in Northern Ireland may be left without a popular mental health programme due to lack of funding, NI's Mental Health Champion has warned.

Professor Siobhan O'Neill said the Healthy Happy Minds (HHM) initiative was at risk of ceasing altogether as the Department of Education sought to make budget savings.

The pilot scheme was launched in November 2021 and provides primary school children with early interventions around poor mental health, teaching them mechanisms for coping and maintaining mental wellness.

Prof O'Neill said it was a vital juncture for mental health provision for young people.

"Over the last few days, I got an email to say it probably wouldn't continue, that there were no plans to extend it," she said.

"We're almost at the point of confirming that where there's no money in the proposed budget.

"But of course we're still really waiting on the final budget from Westminster, so I always have a little bit of hope that things could change, so that's why I'm upping the ante on it right now."

The programme itself consisted of a range of help being made available to primary school children, often in ways that are less formal than traditional therapy.

It was allocated £5m of funding when it launched two years ago and was allocated a further £2.25m in July of last year.

"HHM was a whole programme that could include counselling, but it was counselling that looks like play therapy, art therapy, music and drama therapy that would really support young people with negative emotions, to help them understand their emotional response and to help them cope with stress and pressure better," said Prof O'Neill.

"These were children that were really struggling and may be mental health service users in the future.

"To date, over 19,000 children have been helped by this and that's a huge amount of children for a small amount of money and the schools are saying the need is still there.

"There's still young people coming through with all sort of problems, adversities, trauma that they need to deal with - the formal mental health services aren't able to deliver at the minute, there's long waiting lists for services.

"This was just such a beautiful programme that allowed schools to define what's needed, to get in the therapists themselves to provide the interventions either individually or in groups."

However, she also acknowledged that the Department of Education has been left in a tricky spot as budgets are being squeezed across every area of government.

"We're just gutted that schools that would have depended on this aren't going to have that now," she said.

"I also recognise that there's nowhere for the department to go here, they've cut everything that they can cut.

"This was a pilot so they're really left in a terrible position.

"I'm just hoping that somebody would see this and make a decision to fund it."

The Department of Education confirmed it was likely it would be unable to continue to fund the programme.

"The Healthy Happy Minds Therapeutic and Counselling pilot is operating until the end of March 2023," a spokesperson said.

"The programme is subject to an independent evaluation and DE is expecting this to be completed by the end of March 2023.

"Current indications are that DE will be given an extremely challenging budget outcome for 2023-24, and therefore, it is unlikely that the Department will be in a position to continue with this pilot after the end of March."

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