As a child and adolescent mental health advocate, meeting policymakers and politicians is an important piece of the work I do.
Last week I was invited to meet with An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, to discuss his government’s response to the global health crisis of Covid-19 and the impact it has had on the mental health of the people of this country.
I also wanted to meet with An Taoiseach to discuss his government’s plans to tackle the very serious twin issues of teenage drinking and the ease with which children can access hard-core sexual content on their devices.
I meet so many families every day struggling with the teenager in the house because they are drinking or engaging in very negative behaviour on their devices. It is clear to me that the government needs to have robust policies in place to tackle these pressing and immediate issues.
The government has put over 1 billion into mental health services over the last few years. Of course, the optics of this is great but as the clinical director of a mental health service, I haven’t always seen the fruits of that huge investment.
My concern is that with all this money going into services, how can we assure that the money is being spent wisely so that those who need help can get it? I put this to An Taoiseach and he explained, "We will get better value for money if we can continue to grow the community mental health side of it and the primary care side. One of the issues, in recent years, is the capacity to get personnel, particularly in psychiatry. There have been issues in adequately resourcing child and adolescent mental health centres. So, we are seeing how we can improve the human resources side of that."
This is a hugely important step by the government because I have seen, for far too long, families struggling because they are on long waiting lists for CAMHS due to staffing issues. So they never receive the help and support when they need it most.
There is a very real sense, when you sit down with this Taoiseach, that he is acutely aware of the issues that have plagued mental health services in this country. He was the Minister who set up NEPS (National Educational Psychological Service) which provides schools with psychologists specialised in working within the school community. So, he values wellbeing and mental health promotion.
He is adamant that keeping schools open was important for the wellbeing of the country. I agree with him. I witnessed an incredible surge in students seeking out therapy because they were forced to stay home under the first lockdown. Thankfully that has shifted due to these new measures allowing schools to remain open.
I will never stop campaigning to put an end to the advertising of alcohol products because it is the single biggest driver and sustainer of children’s recruitment into alcohol. I have seen, first hand, the devastation alcohol brings into the young lives of our children. Alcohol Action Ireland estimate €150million was spent last year in the Irish market alone on alcohol marketing.
So I put it to An Taoiseach; he was the only one willing to stand up to the big cigarette companies 16 years ago when he brought in the smoking ban as Minister for Health, would he be willing to do it again to protect our children from insidious ads that recruit them into alcohol?
An Taoiseach responded by acknowledging the great work of the previous administration in the drafting up of the Public Health Alcohol Act. This act is a significant step forward as it lays out progressive measures on content of advertising, minimum unit pricing and labelling of alcohol products. "We need a national conversation about alcohol, the segregation of alcohol so that it can’t be sold alongside sweets, is happening. The big issue is the minimum prices order."
When I asked him would his government clarify the implementation of the Public Health Alcohol Act he said, "I would favour an early commencement of it. My own view is that we should move on that legislation and I will be speaking to the Minister for Health about it."
This is a positive statement, but long overdue. When I delineated my experiences with teenagers and pornography An Taoiseach said, "Legislatures have been outpaced by this issue and it does affect mental health. There is an obligation on the service provider to protect children."
But I believe they would never do that without governmental influence because there is too much money involved. An Taoiseach said, "Legally we should enforce them to do that, I can see stronger laws coming to protect children but we must work on children’s sense of self-respect and confidence also."
I have often wondered what it must be like to be the leader of a country. We cannot fathom the sense of isolation, the need to be guarded when you speak, the responsibility and pressure. So how does he mind his own mental health? "
I try to create space if I can, I walk a lot in nature, I find it very healing. Swimming in the sea is a great therapeutic. Reading gives me different perspectives and I have a sense of humour as well, not everyone will accept that," he said with a smile.
My feeling is An Taoiseach Micheál Martin is very aware of the psychological issues facing the citizens of this country and at the very least, having witnessed the last four chaotic years across the water, that’s a good starting point.