By Eóin Dawson
Research commissioned by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) has highlighted the mental health crisis among young people in Northern Ireland. Data revealed that children and young people in the North are 25% more likely than their British counterparts to experience anxiety and depression. It also reveals that roughly one in eight children and young people have thought about or engaged in suicidal behaviour.
Last year, HSCB figures revealed a six-fold increase of missed Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) targets. An “additional investment of close to £1m” was promised, however, there are still children on waiting lists for assessment for over a year. Health minister Robin Swann’s platitudes and “close to £1m” falls far short of the £4.8 million funding gap as identified in 2017.
The legacy of the Troubles, high rates of poverty and deprivation all contribute significantly to mental ill health in the North, issues which disproportionately affect working class areas. Meanwhile, the Stormont parties, defined by “green versus orange”, are incapable of addressing any aspect of the legacy of the Troubles. Their pursuit of a neoliberal economic model has led to almost one in four children in Northern Ireland living in poverty, 61% of whom live in a household with at least one work parent. Stormont’s failures perpetuate the mental ill health of children, young people, and society as a whole.
While children and young people in the South are spared the worst effects of the Troubles, there is an equally urgent situation, with over 2,000 waiting for assessment by CAMHS services. Counselling services are often capped and children discharged after 10 sessions. Mental ill health in children and teenagers is on the rise in the South, in part as a result of Covid-19, with studies suggesting as many as one in six young teenagers may have a diagnosable mental health disorder.
With politicians in the South pursuing the same devastating economic policies as those in the North, the likelihood of the required funding being made available is less than slim. In fact, proportional funding of mental health services in the South has been reduced, despite Sláintecare recommendations that the budget be increased.
Covid exposes weaknesses in service provision
There is an urgent need for investment in mental health services, North and South. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the fundamental problems in the way services are delivered and has damaged mental health on both sides of the border. Emergency funding should be made available to meet the needs of children and young people at risk. Joint campaigns of mental health workers, service users and unions are the only means by which politicians will ever be moved on these issues. These groups also have a role to play in determining how the funding should be spent.
Young people, including those suffering from mental ill health, have a key role to play in fighting to ensure that their needs are met, not only in relation to mental health, but also the determinants of mental health; decent wages, housing, jobs, quality, integrated, education, and an end to sectarian division. Young people have often led the way and can take up the banner of mental health. Workers, unions and communities can add to their fight and have the potential to win real gains for all.