'The biggest challenge is staffing' - Minister for Mental Health insists improvements are on the way
Helen McEntee suggested to Enda Kenny that a minister for mental health should be appointed – almost a year ago she was given the job.
Now, just shy of 12 months in the portfolio, she said “it’s a long and short year in a sense”.
“I’ve probably met with more groups and organisations than I thought I would but it’s been great because it means I’ve got a good sense from absolutely everybody in terms of what’s going on on the ground, what’s happening with services and what kind of needs to happen,” she said.
“The one thing I would say about mental health is that what got us to where we are today is not necessarily going to get us where we need to be in the future, we have to start changing the way that we are thinking about it.”
Two key areas identified by mental health reform activists are better access to services for young people and 24/7 access to acute services for those in need.
Both areas need significant work the minister admits but insists that work is underway.
She hopes that by the end of the year there will be seven day access to services across the country – something not everywhere as at the moment and from then there is work underway to install pilot programmes to see how 24/7 access could be rolled out nationally.
“I would hope that 2018 would be the year that we could look and see what works and what doesn’t,” she said.
“The biggest challenge in that is the staffing numbers. Funding is not really the issue, we could have €100m allocated tomorrow but if you don’t have the trained staff then you’re going to have to try and spend it elsewhere,” she said.
“We have a recruitment problem across the board so… we’re trying to do a number of things.”
Increasing nursing places in college, increasing wages and upgrading facilities are all measures she hopes will begin to have an improve the success rate of the HSE in recruiting much-needed staff.
As of September last there were just shy of 10,000 people working in specialised mental health services across the country – about 78pc of the recommended staff level set out in a 2006 plan called A Vision For Change (AVFC) which set out to overhaul mental health policy nationally.
A review of AVFC and whether the HSE has met the benchmarks set out in it is due in the coming weeks.
It is expected that the staffing level will stay the same.
Staffing is a particular barrier when it comes to services for children and teens.
“This year there was €5m allocated for new assistant psychologists, on kind of a pilot system to increase the support in the community,” he said.
“Our Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) are obviously stretched and it’s a problem – it’s a good problem in a way because more people are seeking help but obviously when we are having a difficulty with staffing our CAHMs teams we need to try and reach our young people we need to try and reach our young people before they are sent to CAHMs.”
The Minister acknowledges that Ireland is only about 60-70pc of the way there when it comes to providing adequate mental health services.
When it comes to the long standing stigma around mental health, despite the progress being made to promote awareness we are only 60pc there in eradicating that also she said.
“It’s still there and there’s no point in pretending it’s not,” she said.
“It’s about encouraging a conversation and the right conversation. I think we get caught in a trap of talking about it so much that young people think they have to be labelled with something,” she cautioned.
National campaigns such as the Green Ribbon campaign running currently and the ‘Connecting For Life’ strategies which are being rolled around the country to tackle our suicide levels are all a means of achieving better outcomes she said.
When it comes to her brief Ms McEntee may be more invested than most, having personal experience of suicide.
In 2012 her father, a then-minister died by suicide.
She went on to fill his shoes, being elected to his seat in Meath East, and she feels she has a unique perspective that drives her on - but is conscious that most people have encountered the effects of mental health difficulties in one form or another.
“When you have personal experience with anything is that it gives you an insight into that maybe other people don’t have but unfortunately the thing with mental health is that everyone has some experience with it.
"It might not be as personal as losing a father but everyone has some connection. Even I it’s a neighbour or a friend that’s had a difficulty – it doesn’t necessarily have to be a someone who has died by suicide – everybody has some connection.
"I think when you are affected, or when you lose somebody you are more aware.
"I suppose that’s what it’s all about making people who maybe haven’t had that close experience aware of the dangers but aware of possibilities….
"If you suffer from an illness and you know the impacts that it can have you are more aware of the impact around you and it’s the same when you are impacted by mental illness things that you may not have been aware of come into your vision and come into your sight,
"It’s about getting people who haven’t had personal experience to notice those things as well and that’s sometimes a challenge," she added.
With just a year under her belt, and dual responsibility for older people, she is hopeful to remain in her current ministry.
"There is a lot of stuff that I’m working on that I’d like to see through. I think we have a lot more work to do," she said.
Relevant helplines that can be accessed by people in distress include: Childline: 1800 66 66 66; Aware: 1800 80 48 48; Samaritans: 116 123 and relevant websites: www.reachout.com, www.aware.ie, www.yourmentalhealth.ie, www.jigsaw.ie