Government has betrayed Donal's memory with slashed health funding
Published 08/01/2014 | 02:30
The Government has betrayed the memory of Donal Walsh in its unconscionable decision to slash funding for mental health services.
Last week, RTE aired a documentary about Kerry teenager Donal Walsh, who came to national prominence when he highlighted the issue of youth suicide before he succumbed to cancer in May.
Donal's message was a simple one: Young people suffering from suicidal thoughts should seek help.
In a HSE video, filmed shortly before he died and which has been shown in schools all over the country, Donal told students that "no one is going to judge you" for seeking help.
"Why keep it to yourself when people you love and that love you, are there to help?" he said, adding that it took "a lot of courage" to ask for help.
This message, coming from someone whose own death was imminent, was hugely effective.
Donal wanted to live but cancer was killing him. He wanted other young people, who were battling depression, to see that suicide was not the answer. That life, no matter how bleak it seemed, could be worth living.
However, people battling a depressive illness need more than just words of encouragement -- they need a range of complex services, like psychotherapy and counselling, because their illness is just as real and potentially dangerous as cancer.
Despite this, many of the young people who heard Donal's message of hope, and courageously sought help, have found none forthcoming. Instead of receiving treatment, they have been left languishing on waiting lists.
At the end of August, 2,541 children were on a waiting list to access mental health services -- with 413 of these waiting more than 12 months for their first appointment.
The number on the waiting list is, according to the HSE, "50pc above the target of 1,696 cases and is reflecting the demand level". In other words, demand for mental health services is 50pc above the forecasted level.
Perhaps this is the reason why, up to the end of August, 68 children -- including five children aged under 16, 27 aged under 17 and 36 aged under 18 -- had been admitted to adult inpatient units. This is despite the fact that the admittance of children to adult inpatient units was supposed to cease in 2011.
Why? Because, according to Barnardos, "placing children in adult psychiatric units is totally inappropriate as both the facilities and staff can be ill-equipped to cope with teenagers' illnesses and this can subsequently have a negative affect on the patient's recovery".
Even when it is given money to spend on recruitment for mental health services, because staff numbers have dropped by more than 1,000 in the past four years, the HSE is somehow unable to spend it.
As of the end of November, just 395 of the 414 posts that had been approved for 2012 had been filled, while just 134 of the 477 posts that were supposed to be created in 2013 had been filled.
Evidently, in the midst of one of the worst unemployment crises in the history of the state, the HSE is unable to hire staff.
Meanwhile, faced with this unprecedented demand for services, the Government, instead of increasing funding, has instead slashed the meagre mental health budget by more than 40pc.
Reneging on a promise in the Programme for Government, to ringfence €35m for mental health services each year, the Government will this year spend just €20m.
So, out of a total health budget of €13.66bn, the Government was unable to find a mere €35m for mental health services, despite the fact that more than 500 people die from suicide each year.
It's a decision that will cost lives. But no one in this Government seems to care. If they did, how could they stand over the slashing of the budget?
Donal Walsh did his best to raise awareness about the scourge of suicide but his message is undermined if the Government is unable to even provide basic support services for those seeking assistance.
What does it say to people who are desperately trying to get help when doors are slammed in their faces and they're told an appointment is more than 12 months away?
When GAA star Conor Cusack went public with his battle with depression last year he said that his treatment by a clinical psychologist was critical to his recovery.
It's not good enough to just tell people battling depression that things will get better, or that things could be worse, they need to believe it and, in order for this to happen, many will need treatment.
The Government has a responsibility to do more than engage in empty sloganeering and, having requested that Donal Walsh front a campaign imploring people to seek help, the least it could do is honour his memory and provide it.