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Medb Ruane: Children deserve better than empty election promises

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Wheels in motion: Enda
Kenny with the Get on
Board Team in Co
Limerick

Wheels in motion: Enda Kenny with the Get on Board Team in Co Limerick

Wheels in motion: Enda Kenny with the Get on Board Team in Co Limerick

You know what it's like to wake up happy, right? I'm hoping Enda Kenny woke up feeling delighted this morning because I heard his words 'let's hit the ground running' and I want to jog along, for today.

Enda said some interesting things about social justice on Tuesday night, so let's start with mental health.

He said mental health is where he really wants to make a difference. He, Gilmore and Martin had devoted two minutes and 10 seconds out of a total 90-minute debate to the entire social agenda. Gilmore wanted to make a difference on disability and Martin favoured equality of educational opportunity for every child. A case of motherhood and apple pie?

This dark cloud of banking, money and IMF stuff needn't blind everyone to other aspects of living in Ireland. If Kenny decides to make a difference to the social agenda, he can. He spoke of "the 300,000 people who suffer from mental illness every year, the 75,000 who attempt self-harm and the ratcheting up of support for those who have the tragedy of suicide visit their families". So how will he deliver, year on year?

The opening line of Vanity Fair's recent article on Ireland bothered me deeply because it wrote in stone a myth about Irishness that must be challenged. "Long used to tragedy..." the article began, then it talked economics. I disliked the determinism of that line, the way it glued Irishness to some mawkishly negative way of being in the world that is ours alone. It is not.

We don't have the pursuit of happiness written into the Constitution as the US does, but there's no genetic compulsion to believe that tragedy, in Vanity Fair's terms, is Ireland's fate. Of course people are hurting and communities are needing support. And the trouble is that economic catastrophes are worsening the suffering. Rates of suicide had been dropping -- now there's a 20pc upturn.

Where could Kenny start (if he means it)? Structural issues include reviewing and revising the Mental Health Act, implementing the Vision for Change policy, improving standards of residential care and driving more and better community care. But like most things, it's complicated.

Coming from Mayo where rates are relatively high, Kenny knows about death by suicide. The more outlying or isolated a community, the more despair takes a deadly turn. So, assuming he'll lead for a five-year term, how would he make change happen?

Kenny can start mental health reform in 2011 simply by making children and young people his top priority. He had his picture taken on the Get On Board bus that campaigned to make youth health an election issue. Will he give them his Number One?

Children and teenagers with any mental health issues are third-class citizens in the system -- and as mental health is already the Cinderella of health services, their place is very, very low.

In 2009, for example, 200 children were admitted to adult inpatient facilities because there were no other places available. This violates their dignity and it must stop. But without a constitutional status of their own, under-18s don't have any rights to appropriate healthcare. And although Cork and Galway opened new facilities last year, the HSE acknowledged a 14pc rise in the number of children on waiting lists nationally in the first six months of 2010.

It's hard to say whether the increased number in need of treatment is about them or about the wider society. A small number will always need treatment and most difficulties can be navigated if they receive the right interventions in good enough time. If they don't, a child can go on to develop major problems during adolescence.

These can be worked with, and sometimes resolved, so that the person can move into adulthood without too much disruption. But it does come back to the economy and the priorities about where, not how much, existing funds are spent.

Anyone bringing up children knows the subtle way small issues can become make-or-break. The extra worry is that many families are under huge stress because of money concerns, unemployment, housing issues, emigration and the general gloom in the public world. It's difficult to shelter children or reassure them that Ireland is not bringing its children up for export. Really, the sane response is to feel upset.

I want to believe Kenny's commitment to mental health, but I've been round the block too often to take it at face value or to see any reason why children and young people will be treated more respectfully than in the past. Although his party is committed to holding a children's referendum, it's the plan to abolish the Seanad that makes news on the FG site.

In one possible future, Kenny could turn around child and teenage mental health care in 2011 by realigning existing spending within existing budgets.

By 2012, he could begin to see it knitting into education and social protection services through more astute management of social and psychological supports.

By 2013, if his Get Ireland Working mantra starts paying off, he could say truthfully that Ireland is raising its children for life, not for export. Tragedy doesn't have to belong here.

Indo Review