Mental Health Services Have Never Been So Desperately Needed. A [Euro]15m Budget Cut Is a Huge Mistake; as the Suicide Rate Soars, an Expert Speaks Out

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Byline: SHARI McDAID DIRECTOR, MENTAL HEALTH REFORM

AMONG the many headlines about Budget 2014, there have been several on the topic of mental health funding. On Budget Day, I sat with the small Mental Health Reform team and watched Minister Brendan Howlin deliver his speech on next year's expenditure. We heard that [euro]20m would go to community mental health services next year. This is [euro]15m less than the Government had promised back in 2011.

To say I was disappointed that the full amount was not going to be invested next year would be an understatement. We spent eight weeks travelling around Ireland campaigning for the full [euro]35m - just the amount promised - and, on the way, 21,000 people gave their signatures in support. Now we're left asking whether the amount provided for in Budget 2014 will be enough.

Mental health services are increasingly needed and there are worrying signs that the recession is leading to increased mental health difficulties.

The annual rate of suicide in Ireland, according to preliminary statistics from the CSO, increased by 7% in 2011 compared to 2010.

In 2010, the rate of individuals who have self-harmed and presented to A&E departments rose by 4% on the previous year, the fourth successive year the figure rose. Youth suicide in Ireland is the fourth highest in Europe.

A major change is happening in mental health services in Ireland, but it is long overdue.

In the 1950s, Ireland had more than 20,000 people in psychiatric hospitals - the highest rate of psychiatric hospitalisation in the world at that time. In 2010, this figure was around 2,800. There has been a dramatic shift in mental health services from institutions into general hospitals and the community.

THE move that is happening should mean that people can be treated for mental distress in their own community, with the support of family and friends, and with access to community mental health nurses, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and other mental health professionals. These changes lie at the heart of the Government's mental health policy, A Vision for Change.

But the closure of psychiatric hospitals has not been met with anything like an equal investment in community-based mental health services. The proportion of the health budget that goes to mental health has dropped by 60% in the past 30 years. In 1984, mental health services received 13% of the overall health budget; in 2012 this had dropped to just 5.2%. And between 2009 and 2012, the mental health services lost more than 1,000 staff.

Numbers aside, we can't forget the impact that staff shortages are having on people with mental health difficulties.

Mental Health Reform holds regular public meetings across the country, where we hear from people about their or their family members' experiences of mental health services. This year, one person told me: 'I lost a psychologist. I was on a list to see her and then was told that she went on maternity leave and would not be replaced.' Also talking about waiting lists, another person said: 'There aren't enough professionals to provide support. You're told you are on a waiting list and then given a student trainee. It's sad that you have to fight for that and then have to rely on a trainee.' Someone else spoke to us about trying to get help for a loved one who was beginning to feel unwell. …