Northern Ireland is facing “unprecedented” mental health challenges following the coronavirus pandemic, Health Minister Robin Swann has warned.
Addressing his Stormont scrutiny committee on Thursday, Mr Swann said there was a shortfall of £100m to £150m in mental health provision in Northern Ireland.
He said that urgent funding was needed to address the situation and to put mental health on an even footing with physical health.
He told the committee: “Given that this week is Mental Health Awareness Week, it is entirely appropriate that we give this topic the platform and focus it deserves.
“It is hugely important that we use this opportunity to strive to reduce stigma associated with mental ill health, to improve support for those who need it and to secure the resources to ensure we have a system that adequately cares for our community.”
He continued: “Mental health services were under considerable pressure before the pandemic and they are now experiencing unprecedented challenges.
“It is highly likely that these pressures will continue as the mental health surge we have all been anticipating begins to bite over the coming months.
“Indeed, evidence from other countries indicates that we are only at the beginning of this surge.”
Mr Swann said his department had established a mental health strategy to address pressure on mental health inpatient beds to deal with increased needs created by the pandemic.
He added: “I also hope it will bring us in line with mental health provision in other parts of the UK and, indeed, once fully implemented, ensure Northern Ireland has a world class mental health system to be proud of.
“I hope to be in a position to publish the final strategy in the summer, alongside a funding plan setting out the resource requirements to implement it.”
Mr Swann said a key element of the strategy would be a funding plan.
He said: “This will set out more clearly the funding requirements to see the strategy implemented, and as I have mentioned, the figures will be significant.
“But now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand – we have seen the needs of our communities increase during the last year, we know it is unlikely to significantly improve, and we are building on a shaky foundation of years and years of under-investment.
“Now is the time for action, and I trust Committee members will be supportive of all attempts to secure additional resources to achieve our strategy’s aims and improve mental health outcomes for all in Northern Ireland.
“As members will know, mental health services in Northern Ireland have historically been underfunded in comparison with other UK jurisdictions.
“Mental health in NI receives between 25 and 30% less funding per capita than in England, despite many indications that mental health needs in this country are greater, not least because of the legacy of the Troubles.
“That equates to a funding gap of approximately £100m to £150m per year, which is a dire reflection of the low priority we as a society and government have afforded to mental health up to now.”