COMMENT: Our government is failing us when it comes to mental health
Helen McEntee has failed to adequately explain why additional funds that had been ringfenced for new mental health services in Ireland have been reduced.
The Junior Minister for Mental Health and Older People, Helen McEntee, needs a far better grasp on the reasons why the government can not attract new, much needed staff during the country's worsening mental health crisis.
Speaking to John Murray on last Friday's Drivetime on RTÉ, McEntee revealed that the cut in the initial allocation for new mental health services came down to staffing difficulties across psychiatric and counselling services in the country, as well as the rising cost of a new forensic mental health facility in Portrane, Co. Dublin.
Pressed by Murray on the reason why expenditure on the facility had increased by a massive €36m, McEntee replied: "Increase in costs. Increase in building. I don't exactly know down to the minutest detail."
That the government's leading voice on mental health in Ireland had not drilled down into the rising costs at Portrane, before the announcement of a cut in expenditure on new initiatives, is just the latest example of a system failing its citizens when it comes to their mental health.
This is a government still failing - despite earlier, promising noises from both McEntee and her boss, the Minister for Health Simon Harris - when it comes to helping those in serious distress.
In her conversation with Murray, one of the reasons McEntee gave for not being able to attract nurses and psychiatrists to fill key roles in care services was the competitive salaries that they could receive abroad.
"What happened with the previous government was that there was a commitment that there would be €35m every year for new developments," McEntee said.
"New developments mean new services; what has happened over the last five years is we haven't been able to spend that €35m every year, in terms of staff, because the demand for staff far outweighs the supply. We actually don't have the staff.
"We haven't been able to spend it, so what's happened is that that money has gone elsewhere. Myself and my colleague Minister Harris worked very hard to get that money back into mental health this year. When we couldn't spend it on staffing - because the staff wasn't there - some of that money was spent on capital, on opening new places within our colleges for pyschiatric nurses.
"So a decision was made this year; we've spread it across two years, but that's not saying next year we can't look for more money."
At the beginning of her interview with Murray, McEntee had said that claims the government were only spending an additional €15m on mental health services - as opposed to the promised €35m - were 'a distraction.'
"The distraction now is that the government is spending €15m on mental health and not €35m as promised. We're actually spending €74.7m more on mental health next year than we will this year. And yes, €50m of that is for a new forensic hospital and almost €10m of that is for increasing wages for our staff, an integral part of making sure our service improves.
"€15m of that is for new developments, so this figure of €35m that we've talked about for the last number of years has actually turned into more of a difficulty because I meet people now who think that all we're spending on mental health is €35m."
She then went on to explain that of the €50m being spent on the new forensic hospital, €36m had not been accounted for when planning permission had been granted.
Green Party TD Catherine Martin got straight to the point.
"That, frankly, is totally inadequate given the over-stretched and under-resourced state of our mental health system," she told Murray.
"The tragic truth is that, yet again, our citizens with mental health difficulties and their families have been let down.
"We need 24/7 crisis intervention mental health services across our country. We need one dedicated mental health worker in every primary care team. We need to deliver evidence-based, supported employment to people with mental health difficulties. That's just the start of it. There's so much that needs to be done here.
"What is the vision? No more talk. Can we please now have action? We cannot camouflage figures with language. We've had too many false dawns and mixed messages, the Minister needs to prioritise our most vulnerable citizens."
The government's dithering is costing lives
McEntee's message was unclear.
On the one hand, the reason for the cuts on new initiatives came down to an inability to attract staff to fill vital roles within the realm of mental health. (Roles, incidentally, that will only be filled by offering competitive wages and facilities that can only be achieved through increased funding.)
On the other hand, she insisted that those cuts were made due to the added €36m accrued by the building costs at the new forensic facility, costs that she was not able to explain in any detail.
The Director of Mental Health Reform, Shari McDaid, painted a stark picture of why the government's dithering on this is costing hundreds of lives across Ireland.
“More and more people of all ages are seeking support to recover from a mental health difficulty; more than 2,000 children and adolescents were waiting for a first appointment for mental health services in July, of which 10% or 200 were waiting more than 12 months. Clearly more resources are needed at the coal face and a 1.8% increase is wholly inadequate to respond to this need."
Hold them to task
The time for learning on the job is over.
Simon Harris and Helen McEntee need to build on the promises of their early weeks in government by doggedly pursuing key new nursing and psychiatric staff in primary care facilities across the country, paying whatever it takes to get those roles filled, while ensuring proper oversight in Portrane (which will not open until 2019, according to McEntee, despite an earlier promise that it would arrive as soon as 2018).
Given the thousands upon thousands of Irish people living with depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, addiction, stress and the myriad other symptoms of poor mental health - not to mention the 451 who died by suicide in 2015 in this country - the government is failing us.
Keep an eye on their promises, hold them to task.
Updated: Wednesday 7.35am