Urgent action needed on services, committee urges

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By Aileen MoynaghBBC News NI health reporter

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The Public Accounts Committee makes several recommendations for improving mental health services

Stormont’s Department of Health has been urged to give “greater priority to mental health services in Northern Ireland” by an assembly committee.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) also said the funding for key services should increase.

The move followed the committee’s inquiry into mental health services, which arose from a report published by the Northern Ireland Audit Office ( NIAO) last year.

The Department of Health has told BBC News NI that it “acknowledges the NIAO’s report and fully agrees that mental health services require additional funding”.

Members of the committee asked the department to carry out a review into whether it is providing enough early support to children who need it, including “timely access” to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

It has also asked for an action plan to address “unacceptable” mental health waiting lists.

‘Funding certainty needed’

The cost of mental ill-health in Northern Ireland is estimated to be about £3.4bn per year.

The majority of costs is associated with four main conditions – anxiety (22%), depression (20%), bipolar disorder (16%) and schizophrenia (8%).

The report found “significantly less” is spent on mental health in Northern Ireland per capita than in the rest of the UK.

The 10-year mental health strategy was published in June 2021, with £1.2bn needed to fully implement its recommendations.

On Thursday, PAC published its own report and made a series of recommendations to the Department of Health and the Executive as a whole.

Siobhán O'Neill is looking off-camera. She has a neutral expression

Siobhán O’Neill said it was “appalling” that the mental health strategy may not be fully funded

The mental health champion for Northern Ireland Prof Siobhán O’Neill said Northern Ireland “spends less per head of population on mental health than the other UK regions”.

The Ulster University academic said that this was despite “greater needs here because our mental health difficulties are more significant as a result of the conflict”.

“We need to invest more in mental health services so that we can create a healthy population and then we can begin to thrive and flourish”.

“It is appalling to think we have this plan for transformation and that it may not be funded,” she added.

‘Key gaps in mental health’

Among the 16 recommendations are that the department “sets out a target and timeframe over which it will grow mental health funding towards 10-11% of the total health budget”.

It has also been requested to identify “key gaps in mental health services”, including regional disparities across Northern Ireland and “urgently implements planned regional crisis services”.

The committee also called for greater partnership working between health and education to better address the mental health needs of children.

It said it had asked the Department of Health to implement services for those with co-occurring mental health and substance use issues “as a matter of urgency”.

The PAC has expressed “concern” that voluntary and community sectors often “appeared to be the first port of call when funding cuts were required” but that they provide a “vital role” in providing mental health services.

Its recommendation is that the Department of Health reviews how it can “provide funding certainty given its reliance on these sectors”.

In a statement to BBC News NI, the DoH said that “while progress has been made on the delivery of Northern Ireland’s mental health strategy, the department has been clear that additional and sustained funding is required to fully implement all actions within the strategy and bring about the necessary improvements in services”.

“The department will now take the time to consider the report’s 16 recommendations in full.”

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