A new hope for mental health in Northern Ireland

Anna Balmer writes.

28 November 2020

Northern Ireland’s catastrophic levels of mental ill health are very well documented; we have the highest suicide rate in the UK, in fact more people in Northern Ireland have died by suicide in the past 17 years than were killed here during 30 years of violent political conflict. Our male suicide level is twice that of England’s. We have the world’s highest recorded rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

One Ulster University study suggested that almost 30 per cent of the Northern Ireland population suffer mental health problems, nearly half of which are directly related to the Troubles. About 40 per cent of people here have been affected in some way by really traumatic events linked to the Troubles and 17 per cent have seen somebody dead or injured. Young people in Northern Ireland who know people affected by the Troubles are also more likely to self-harm, even though they never witnessed any of the Troubles.

For two decades our government has failed to address the mental health legacy of conflict and now we live in a society blighted by transgenerational trauma. The collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly has only made the mental health crisis worse. We waited while any momentum needed to appoint a much needed mental health champion diminished. The action promised on a regional trauma service, increasing access to psychological therapies, recovery focused provision, and maternal mental health, failed to materialise. Due to lack of a functioning executive, no recommendations of the Historical Abuse Enquiry could be implemented, including mental health support for individuals abused in children’s homes and other residential institutions (1922-1995) and their families. This delay and lost opportunity has led to a substantial human and societal cost of mental distress. Northern Ireland’s mental health crisis is a public health emergency and it long seemed like no action was taken, and no progress made. 

I was delighted to see the announcement of a mental health champion post in Northern Ireland as a strong, effective and independent voice to advocate for mental health. I look forward to seeing their role not only in highlighting the importance of emotional wellbeing and mental health in the aftermath of conflict, but now also in the context of Covid-19. This appointment is an integral part to a long overdue commitment to mental health. While the details of this role remain unclear, its creation is a positive step; acute mental health needs in our communities require a solution. A champion with a dedicated focus will help us achieve this. They will play a valuable role in ensuring that all areas of public life recognise the importance of taking effective steps to promote better health and inclusivity for those with a mental illness. The mental health champion will sit outside of government but hold them to account while they develop strategies, make recommendations and lobby for change.

Naturally, there have been mixed reactions and concerns. Some feel that this is a misguided and misdirected spending of public resources. It could also be argued that bereaved families and individuals struggling with mental health issues are already mental health champions within our communities and society, that we should listen to the ideas of these individuals and ensure timely and effective access to services – and that implementing these services should be a priority. I would argue that we have mental health champions in many people, and that the appointment of a mental health champion and valuing the views and recommendations of these individuals need not be mutually exclusive; a mental health champion will not take away from their initiatives but will add to them. 

There are also concerns that a mental health champion will not have enough power or leverage to influence policy, and that we already have countless reports outlining gaps in our mental health services – so what could this person add? Despite these reports no change has been made and our mental health crisis continues. In the years without such an appointment, our efforts to improve mental health have been ineffective. Any movement by a mental health champion will be a valuable improvement.

The BPS has now welcomed Professor Siobhan O’Neill as interim mental health champion for Northern Ireland. Siobhan is one of our leading experts in mental health. She has extensive experience of working within community and voluntary sectors and is well known for her passionate involvement in suicide prevention. She brings a wealth of experience to this role as someone at the forefront of developing responsive services for those affected by trauma and mental illness.

I am thrilled to see Siobhan in this role – as an assistant psychologist, mental health support worker, and QUB and Ulster University graduate, but most importantly as someone who calls Northern Ireland home. Siobhan’s appointment represents the opportunity to make a significant difference, hold the N.I. Executive to account, and ensure mental health is prioritised and embedded in our policies and practices of government. Perhaps having a voice in the right place will increase the momentum for vital change that we have long needed. This is one appointment in Northern Ireland that fills me with a great sense of positivity and hope. I’ll be cheering her on all the way. 

Anna Balmer

Assistant Psychologist

[email protected]