A worrying rise in anxiety and mental health struggles among children and young people in Sligo was highlighted at Monday’s monthly meeting of Sligo County Council.
A motion put forward by Councillor Thomas Walsh addressed the current wait times for those in need to access psychology services and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in the region stating that an interdepartmental working group is required to address the often ignored needs of young people in this country.
The latest figures released by the HSE show that there are 147 young on people on the waiting for CAMHS in the Sligo-Leitrim area with one patient waiting for over a year, 15 patients for nine to 12 months, 21 patients for six to nine months, 22 patients for three to six months, and 88 patients for less than three months.
Cllr Walsh stated that CAMHS is at ‘breaking point’ and the level of referrals they are currently receiving is unprecedented with 4,003 children on waiting lists nationally.
He said that CAMHS’ own target is to see children within six weeks of referral and currently they are unable to meet that target due an increased number of young people suffering from physical, mental, and social health problems.
“There are children six months on waiting lists who won’t leave their house to attend school, won’t interact with family, peers, or siblings, hundreds with eating disorders, and self-harming on a regular basis, children who are suicidal and can’t get out of bed” he said.
“No doubt part of this is down to the pandemic and the closure of educational services across this country which in my view was a major mistake and we will pay severely for it.”
Cllr Walsh said mental health among young people is a major issue that ‘needs to be addressed now’ as there are also long waiting lists for those who do not meet the criteria for CAMHS and are instead referred to community psychology services.
“CAMHS sees children with moderate to severe mental health difficulties and those who don’t reach that go to community psychology,” he said.
“To be frank the reporting on this is quite minute when considering the importance of the issue. We put together an expert group for Covid and can have policy overnight, but with mental health services the trends are just getting worse. To have children who are suicidal, or having suicidal thoughts, on a waiting list and not accessing treatment for more than six weeks is unforgiveable.”
Cllr Walsh asked the council to write the Minister for Health and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Roderic O’Gorman asking that an interdepartmental group be formed to include education, health, children and TUSLA and ‘deal with this like we dealt with the pandemic’.
“A number of children at CAMHS were not getting early intervention at community psychology level, intervention at that stage is needed, put investment into those services and no doubt CAMHS will decrease over time. This is a national emergency, mental health services are on the floor for children and young people,” he said.
Cllr Marie Casserly said that in her opinion one contributing reason for the ’explosion’ of mental health service referrals among young people is because the Government have dramatically reduced guidance counsellor hours in secondary schools and ‘not replaced them with anything’.
As a qualified secondary school teacher and guidance counsellor in St Mary’s College, Cllr Casserly said she is speaking from personal experience.
“That is your early intervention, that has always been given in secondary schools and it is an extremely important role,” she said.
While plans for a reimagined Leaving Certificate have outlined wellbeing supports for young people, Cllr Casserly said that will only be ‘a sticking plaster’ if there are no targeted services where children can meet with a professional one-to-one.
Cllr Declan Bree gave his support to the motion claiming that the number of young people on waiting lists is ‘clearly unacceptable’ and that more resources are required to address the issue.
“I acknowledge that efforts are being made by some people in the HSE to improve the service, the reality is that the CAMHS and other mental health services in the state are dreadfully underfunded by the Government,” he said.
“The World Health Organisation recommends that 12% to 14% of health and social care expenditure should be directed towards mental health services, and indeed the agreed Sláintecare minimum target is 10% and yet this Fine Gael-Fianna Fail Governments expenditure on mental health services is less than 6% of the healthcare budget, with actual expenditure on children’s mental health services as low as 1% .
“Young people and their families are entitled to expect a high standard of care when they seek services, but unfortunately that level of service cannot be provided by the HSE when the Government continues to refuse to provide adequate funding and resources for the service.”
Cllr Sinéad Maguire stated that in Northern Ireland they do not have the same problems with waiting lists for young people and mental health services and what is needed is a complete overhaul of the system from a ‘medical to psycho-social model’.
“This is not a new phenomenon, this is something that has been discussed several times over the years,” she said.
“Children are crying out for help and those cries go unheard with parents left to pick up the pieces.”
Cllr Arthur Gibbons described the current waiting list figures as ‘very worrying’ and highlighted Sinn Féin’s call for a nationwide audit into CAMHS after a report in South Kerry’s services found many children being exposed to the risk of significant harm, unreliable diagnoses, inappropriate prescriptions and poor monitoring.
However, Cllr Gibbons said he was disappointed to find out the scope of this audit had been reduced to focus primarily on young people with ADHD while ignoring broader issues in the service.
“Is it any wonder the system is falling apart? It’s broken and the professionals were pushing for a full audit to see where the greatest needs are,” he said.
In April 2022, Minister for Mental Health and Older People Mary Butler confirmed a comprehensive Audit of CAMHS teams nationally, however the HSE said it would begin the audit by focusing on CAMHS cases involving those with ADHD before potentially broadening the scope later.
“Long before the pandemic, Ireland had some of the highest rates of suicide for those among young people.
“The Government narrowing down the audit to ADHD is a disgrace and the general public needs to know about this, there are families at their wits end waiting to see a psychologist and that’s not happening,” Cllr Gibbons said.
“This isn’t a situation that’s going to go away, and it should be managed sooner rather than later because we could lose hold of the whole thing.”