Families face 'unacceptable' wait for psych help due to staffing vacancies

Families touched by mental health problems are facing “unacceptable” waits to see a psychiatrist, with new figures showing over a third of permanent consultant posts for child and adult care remain unfilled.

Details obtained by the Irish Examiner reveal that repeated recruitment campaigns have failed to fill HSE mental health psychiatrist posts across seven counties and there is now no closing date for the roles.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the huge gap in filling mental health consultant vacancies was affecting efforts to help families struggling with issues such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Figures supplied to the party leader from the HSE show that, out of the 104 consultant posts in child and adult mental health services, only 66 have been permanently filled.

Another 16 are temporarily filled, some eight are filled by agencies, and there are a further 22 psychiatrist consultant posts which are categorised as vacant.

The response by health authorities, in a written parliamentary answer to Mr Martin, also highlights that there are whole regions where there are “difficulties in terms of attracting candidates”.

“As a result Sligo/Leitrim, Waterford/Wexford, Cavan/Monaghan and Donegal child and adolescent services are affected,” the Dáil reply to Mr Martin says.

The HSE admitted that the process of attracting and retaining mental health consultants and related staff in the area “continues to present unprecedented difficulties across mental health services nationally”.

Despite new posts being advertised over the last four years, “significant challenges” remain, concede health authorities.

While a new recruitment campaign was led last year by the HSE’s mental health division following agreed negotiations with the Department of Health and the Irish Medical Organisation, applications were very limited.

“The response to national and international advertisements [to date] remains low, with variation by sub-speciality and location of post,” the HSE added in its response to Mr Martin.

With the continued gaps in psychiatric care in seven counties now, the posts there will now be re-advertised.

Surprisingly, there is now no planned end to the recruitment process. The July 25 HSE response adds: “Closing dates on these specific competitions have been extended several times to capitalise on the international advertisements placed in several journals. Currently there is no closing date for these competitions.”

Mr Martin is likely to highlight the huge numbers of vacancies when the Dáil resumes next month.

In a statement to the Irish Examiner, the former minister for health said: “I find it extraordinary that there are still so many vacancies across mental health services. Mental health issues continue to silently inflict immense damage on our country and the undercurrent of depression, anxiety, and addiction is a profoundly ingrained problem for Irish society.

“No family is untouched by some form of mental health issue and it is unacceptable that they are put on long waiting lists to see a psychiatrist. More has to be urgently done to fill these vacant posts.”

Services supporting people affected by depression and struggling with suicide risk say the gap in filling psychiatric consultant posts has direct knock-on consequences for their care.

Pieta House, which provides a specialised treatment for people who have suicidal ideation or who self-harm, said it hoped the Government would do more to fill those vacant posts.

Pieta House chief executive Brian Higgins said: “We are aware that unfilled psychiatric posts across the mental health services is now an issue across the country and one consequence of that is long waiting lists to access statutory services and of course that has an impact on our work.

“We would welcome anything that the Government can do to narrow the subsequent gap in services and we know that the ministers are working hard to achieve this.”

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