Mental Health in Northern Ireland

As a young person who has grown up in a post-conflict state, I am thankful for the hard-won peace that the Good Friday Agreement has brought to my generation. The Good Friday Agreement has allowed me to live in a society free of the violence witnessed by my parents. Although it is not a perfect agreement, it has brought stability and has given Irish nationalists a peaceful pathway by which to pursue the reunification of Ireland and its people. 

Unfortunately, many challenges still haunt this region. One of the most devastating of these issues is suicide. Currently, the north of Ireland has a much highest rate of suicide than Britain and the Republic of Ireland. This is the result of a combination of many issues including; transgenerational trauma, lack of investment in mental health support and suicide prevention services, lack of proper well-being education, and of course many societal factors such as caring responsibilities; which disproportionately affects women, a lack of suitable housing, and good jobs-the latest employment statistics highlighted a worsening gap between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in employment rates and economic inactivity.

Currently, in the North of Ireland, there is an evident need for an increase in Community Crisis Intervention Services. A great example of this is the CCIS project based in Derry which has made a significant difference to the local community over the last number of years. The Project offers a safe space for those experiencing mental health crisis. Through providing these services the staff here have shown amazing commitment and dedication to individuals in the locality and with the objective of offering professional interventions during evenings and weekends, when isolation can compound mental health difficulties, this is truly life-saving work. It is imperative therefore that services such as this are recognised and that they are sufficiently funded 

Dual Diagnosis, which is when an individual is diagnosed with a mental health issue in combination with problematic substance misuse, is another particularly prevalent issue in this region. Sadly, people with addiction and other mental health issues are often not diagnosed correctly and therefore do not receive the correct support that they need. Currently, there isn’t a dedicated service for dual diagnosis in the North of Ireland. We need to see a much more cohesive approach for vulnerable people with very particular needs such as Dual Diagnosis. 

Living with mental health issues can impact every aspect of a person’s life– including employment and housing. I hope that the new Mental Health Strategy will assist in ensuring that people with mental health issues can live their lives to the full and I would call on the Minister of Health and the Economy Minister to work together to better assist people into employment. 

Of course, like in every other aspect of our lives, COVID-19 has presented many challenges in terms of mental health services. The biggest challenge exasperated by the pandemic is waiting times. Emerging from this pandemic offers us a special opportunity to reimagine and regenerate our health service. To utilise telemedicine, and invest in tackling our biggest issues such as waiting list times and 24-hour access to services.

I have pressed Minister Swann on the need to reshape and reimagine the health service and think about how we want it to look for the future. World-class mental health services must be at the core of this. As politicians in the North of Ireland, it is our job, along with The British and Irish governments, to try to heal the wounds of the past. The mental anguish that people faced here, and the health and social issues that this causes must be tackled. In my time as MLA and as Chair of the all-party group (APG) on Dual Diagnosis and Addiction, I have noted a real cross-party commitment to bettering mental health, it continues to be one of the few things that unite us all. 

In Northern Ireland, our lives and our political landscape has been, and continue to be, shaped by our region’s past. It is only by continuing to work together, across party lines that we can build a better mental health service, a better economy, and a just society that has the well-being of the people of the North at its heart. 

By Cara Hunter MLA

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