Mental health system - Time for a radical overhaul

DESPITE the much-vaunted promise to cherish all the children of the nation equally, successive governments have been grossly negligent towards young people with mental health problems — the very children who deserve to be cherished above all others. 

Regrettably, the present incumbents have also shown scant regard for their plight.

Naturally, each side of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition has voiced the customary political promise about increasing staffing levels in this dark corner of the health service. Not surprisingly, the cash-strapped regime has so far failed to deliver on that pledge.

What is really worrying is that mental health and other disability areas have been targeted for swingeing cuts. This unacceptable scenario explains why people working at the coalface are growing increasingly worried about the plight of children in their care.

According to a damning report published yesterday, not alone are mental health services for children and teenagers understaffed, they are seriously overstretched.

The release coincides with another alarming report from Hiqa, the health investigative body, criticising management systems and highlighting concerns over living accommodation for 10 people with intellectual disabilities at St Peter’s centre in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. Worryingly, while there was no evidence of physical or verbal abuse, unexplained bruising was found on some residents.

Basically, the study produced by the Children’s Mental Health Coalition found that while demand for services is increasing, the number of staff dealing with mental health issues is actually falling. That gives the lie to pre-election assurances things would get better in the area of child mental health.

If anything, the situation has deteriorated drastically under their imposition of the programme of austerity agreed with European and world bankers by the previous Fianna Fáil-Green coalition as the price for bailing the country out.

The stark reality is that during the economic crisis, mental health and other disabilities were savagely hit, losing significantly more than other parts of the health service, including the deeply damaging loss of one out of every five nurses working in that area.

To make matters worse, the HSE is having difficulty recruiting staff for community-based services. Only a quarter of the mental health posts promised by the Government last year have been filled. Up to the end of 2014, community teams for children and teenagers had only 42% of the staff recommended in the Government’s mental health strategy ‘A Vision for Change’, a 3% drop on 2013.

Parents invariably find their access to services stymied by red tape under rules put in place in 2006 and now seriously out of date.

Families are also acutely aware the cynical yardstick politicians use to measure their plight means that they believe there are few votes to be gained in tackling Ireland’s growing legacy of mental health problems.

Tragically, as long as society’s ills are viewed in such cold terms there seems little hope for families suffering mental problems. It is time for a radical overhaul of how the system is funded and managed — not empty political promises.

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