He called for greater tolerance to be shown towards the vulnerable people who used hostels, and greater co-operation with the State’s efforts to provide facilities for them.
Mr Ahern was responding to a plea from Mater Hospital psychiatrist Professor Patricia Casey to make more funding available for the mentally-ill homeless, who, she said, made up one-third of all psychiatric emergencies handled by the hospital.
The Taoiseach said he was aware of the problem from the regular complaints of his own constituents, who had 80% of Dublin’s hostel accommodation located in their communities.
“Not a week goes by that I don’t have to listen to the difficulties they encounter because of the huge amount of hostels concentrated in one area. Unfortunately, when you try to move these hostels they are met with highly intellectual opposition from residents’ groups,” he said. He suggested a more “tolerant approach” was needed.
Mr Ahern was speaking after performing the official opening of the refurbished Department of Psychiatry at the Mater Hospital, which finally reached completion after 20 years of planning, preparation and funding problems.
The department is located beside the main hospital building in two listed buildings on Eccles Street donated by the Sisters of Mercy and was developed with the financial support of the Eastern Regional Health Authority and University College Dublin.
Among its facilities are an in-patient ward, out-patient clinic, a research unit, teaching centre, therapeutic services, alcohol counselling, and specialist services such as psychological treatments for dealing with chronic pain and conditions with unexplained symptoms.
Professor Casey said the investment in the department represented a welcome change in attitudes towards the mentally-ill, but added that things were not perfect and cited the example of psychiatric patients who were living on the streets or in hostels for the homeless.
“We urgently need services dedicated to the homeless mentally-ill. The generic services which are based around where people live do not have the flexibility to cater for people on the streets. In a time of plenty we should be able to provide dedicated services to the homeless,” she said.
Mr Ahern said public awareness of mental illness had increased and the fear and ignorance that surrounded it was being eliminated. He said the Government was fully committed to furthering this process.
Mr Ahern said the Expert Group on Mental Health Policy set up in 2003 was preparing a national policy for the modernisation of the mental health services which was expected to be completed next year.