The 70 children whose deaths were recorded by the National Educational Psychological Service did not include children aged 16-18 who were not at school, so the overall figure is likely to be higher.
The Oireachtas Committee on the Future of Mental Health Care heard yesterday that the loss of lives happened against a backdrop of repeated calls for more medical professionals, support staff, and facilities for children in need of psychological and psychiatric care.
The committee heard that staffing levels in many places were half or less than half of what was recommended in the landmark Vision for Change plan of 2006, which was meant to be the blueprint for development of mental health services.
The result is that “urgent” assessments for children in crisis can take two weeks while children needing access to psychologists can wait two to four years.
Sonia Magarahan, a clinical nurse specialist with CAMHS, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, in north Cork, said the situation was exacerbated by delays in general paediatric services because children were not supposed to be medicated without a physical examination.
“I have a child waiting 18 months for an endocrine screen before we can treat him. Our hands are tied. We can’t intervene with him because we don’t know what else is going on with him,” she said.
The shortage of staff was made worse by the lack of consistency in key positions. A consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry heads up each CAMHS team but they were often on temporary contracts.
“Over eight years, I have worked with 11 different consultants,” said Ms Magarahan. “There is no stability of service.”
Michael Walsh, a clinical nurse specialist with CAMHS in south Wexford, cited another area where there had been 35 consultants holding the same post over six years.
Mr Walsh said he was worried about addressing the committee because HSE management had tried to send someone with him and he believed that was to stop him speaking freely.
He said he had recently been slapped down for trying to bring attention to a crisis case late on a Friday evening by contacting senior management and was told “to cease the practice”.
“I came here with great trepidation because of fear for my job,” he said. “But I have a big caseload and a lot of people who need help and I felt the only way is to actually say something. If it saved one life, it would be worth my while being here.”
The committee heard 44 children have already been placed in adult psychiatric wards this year because of a chronic shortage of beds in children’s wards. They were effectively locked up because it was not safe to let them mix with adult patients.