By Mike McCourt
Northern Ireland has long suffered with a mental health crisis, which will only be added to by the impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Almost a fifth of the population suffer from mental health issues, 25% more than England. For many people, this issue is linked to the North’s past conflict. It’s easy to see why: 60% of citizens surveyed claimed they had experienced a traumatic event in their life, with 19% of those being conflict-related and 16% involving witnessing a death or serious injury. Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates of intergenerational trauma in the world, manifesting in 8.8% of people showing signs of having post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lifetime.
However, the large-scale sectarian conflict of the past isn’t the only factor In the North’s current mental health crisis. Tory austerity, implemented by Stormont, has undoubtedly had an exacerbating effect on the situation. Between 2010 and 2015, there was a 28.7% decrease in the amount of beds in Northern Ireland available for those with acute mental health issues. Meanwhile, in a similar time period, there was 20% increase in prescriptions for mood and anxiety and disorders. Studies show a small but consistent increase in suicides in the North every year since 2005. Unsurprisingly, research also shows that poverty – deepened by austerity – is linked to mental illness, with 46% of suicides in Northern Ireland occurring in the most deprived areas and 13% in the least deprived.
The Covid-19 crisis in hands of the same Tory and Stormont politicians responsible for the austerity of the past 10 years will only compound Northern Ireland’s harrowing mental health situation. The loss of jobs and uncertainty of income will only increase anxiety in the population. The limitation on socialising, while necessary, can make people feel alienated and lonely and, no doubt, the already underfunded mental health services will be weakened further. Some of those who are already ill will be sent into a downward spiral.
To deflect the negative effects of Covid-19, the state should ease anxieties by waiving rent and mortgage payments, as well as costs of essential services – such as energy, heating, phones and internet – bringing these into public hands if resisted by private companies. Everyone should be guaranteed a living income, paid for through emergency taxation on big business. To go further, online and over-the-phone mental health support should be expanded, free of charge, to help all those in isolation. Once these resources are in place, it’s important that they are maintained and developed after the Covid-19 crisis
The Tories and their local counterparts will not be eager to hand out these essential reforms, but they can still be put under pressure, fearing the political impact of this crisis. They have already been forced to abandon many of their neo-liberal, free market orthodoxies because of the potential for upheaval from below. Action by workers in essential industries and online protest and campaigning can force concessions. We cannot accept that people be left to suffer in silence in the midst of this pandemic.