Making mental health a priority from childhood: Monday interview with Minister of State for Mental Health, Helen McEntee

Helen McEntee, Minister of State for Mental Health, wants to help children develop skills to cope with life's ups and downs, writes Eilish O'Regan

Minister of State Helen McEntee: ‘My biggest worry is that I do a good job. I want to make an impact’. Photo: Mark Condren

Eilish O'Regan

Resilience may be the inner armour that gives us the emotional strength to deal with life's setbacks. But what is the secret to teaching children how to develop this form of 'true grit' for the mind?

Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People Helen McEntee has said she hopes to find some of the answers in the months ahead.

She will chair the first task force to come up with workable strategies to help young people learn the psychological tools to better cope with the painful difficulties they face throughout their lifetime.

"The whole area of mental health has come a long way but there is a lot to be done," she said. "We have to focus on services but prevention has to be part of the driving force.

"I believe there is a lot more we can do across schools and communities. The task force will have wide representation and a huge input of ideas," said the Fine Gael TD for Meath East.

She believes that what makes this initiative different is that it will not be a talking shop, taking months or years to produce a glossy report of recommendations.

Instead, it aims to actively put forward proposals and action plans on a regular basis along the way aimed at helping to nurture psychological confidence.

Another key ambition is to build on the growing openness among young people to talk about the emotional minefield they can face in an era of cyber bullying and heightened peer pressure.

Less than four years ago, her own family was touched by tragedy when Helen's father, Shane McEntee, the Minister of State for Food, Horticulture and Food Safety, took his own life just two days after his 56th birthday.

Smiling at the mention of his name, the TD (30) says she still thinks about her father every day and encounters people who remember the "man who seems to have met everyone".

She said: "My own view is that he was overworked and stressed. In a very short space of time, things went downhill. But it's different for everyone."

Her father's death is one reason she was grateful to be made a minister with responsibility for mental health. But it is also informed by her personal experience of seeing friends and people her own age struggle with stress and uncertainty.

"If I see something negative on my Facebook page, I ignore it," Ms McEntee says.

"Adults need to lead by example when posting something on social media."

Since she took her father's seat three years ago, she has encountered the pressures of being in Dáil Éireann.

"My biggest worry is that I want to do a good job. I want to make an impact."

She credits time spent with her fiancé, Paul Hickey, a former parliamentary assistant, to whom she got engaged in January, as helping her to keep worries in perspective. They intend to marry in August 2017.

Ms McEntee was just getting to grips with her new posting when she received her first taste of being plunged into sorting out a crisis after the Console charity scandal erupted earlier this summer.

The revelation that Paul Kelly, Console's founder, squandered charity funds donated by the public to the suicide-bereavement counselling organisation meant that she was working round the clock with interim chief executive David Hall to wind it up, while ensuring that vital services were still available to people who depended on them.

Despite the resulting loss of so much public trust in charities, Ms McEntee said it must be acknowledged that the HSE cannot directly deliver all the kind of supports that people need across a whole range of social care.

"Charities are needed. They bring their own angle to the care that they deliver," she said.

"It can be more personal. They are often born out of somebody's own experience and their need to fill the gaps."

However, Ms McEntee would be in favour of some organisations which are involved in similar activities sharing backroom functions where possible in order to get the most from funding.

The extension of powers of investigation to the Charity Regulator John Farrelly from September will also have the effect of tightening up the oversight and regulation of the sector, the Minister of State suggests, adding: "I hope we never see another case like Console happening again."

While charities may be able to plug some of the gaps in a small way, the wider state of our mental health services means that many vulnerable people with diagnosed mental illness are being failed.

There are delays in accessing treatment, while for others, release from the big old psychiatric hospitals has just meant living in another 'mini-institution' in the community, according to the Mental Health Commission.

The Government bowed to criticism in recent months and restored €12m of mental health funding that it planned to divert.

Ms McEntee believes the system must be made more attractive to encourage psychiatrists, nurses and other professionals to come and work in it.

"That is happening with the rollout of more modern primary care centres.

"We are investing in mental-health services and trying to create the conditions to recruit the staff and improve the care for patients."

She cites the planned new Central Mental Hospital to be built in Portrane in north Dublin, replacing the old building dating from the 1850s in Dundrum, as an example of progress.

Earlier this summer, she attended a garden party at the Dundrum hospital, where families of patients enjoyed a barbeque.

Referring to the other part of her brief, the care of services for older people, she said the objective in the next Budget would be to increase funding for home-help and home-care packages.

"We need nursing homes but my preference is that people be supported to live in their own homes for as long as they want to," she said.

When it comes to the question of when the Taoiseach should step down as Fine Gael leader, she remains an Enda Kenny loyalist.

"I trust his judgment," she said firmly.