Assembly calls on health minister to progress mental health champion

18 July 2016

Mental health in Northern Ireland is experiencing a level of political attention not seen since 2008 when the Bamford Mental Health and Learning Disability Review published its last report.

We elected a new Assembly in May and, already, before the summer recess:

  • the Assembly achieved cross-party consensus on a motion calling for a mental health champion (tabled by the UUP’s Robbie Butler – the first mental health spokesperson of a political party)
  • the new Sinn Fein minister for health Michelle O’Neill MLA declared that she is "honoured to be the executive’s mental health champion" and announced a 10-year mental health strategy
  • the chair of the health committee, Paula Bradley MLA of the DUP, committed that they would "not let the issue slip off the agenda or let the minister drop the ball"
  • Paula Bradshaw MLA, Alliance, stressed that mental health is central to public health
  • Mark Durkan MLA, SDLP, asserted that "we must all be champions for mental health". 

Assembly members cited statistic after statistic about the catastrophic levels of mental distress experienced by people in Northern Ireland and detailed the human and economic costs of not addressing mental health. They sourced this prevalence in the legacy of the conflict, austerity policies (impacting unemployment, homelessness) and institutional abuse. This framing of the challenge of mental health in Northern Ireland aligns with the Mental Health Foundation’s analysis, which I wrote ahead of the Assembly elections.

MLAs from across the political spectrum recognised that the impact of the conflict on mental health is now intergenerational and that they have a responsibility to have it – finally – addressed on their watch.

They have five years to make significant progress. This Assembly will mark the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. Investing in mental health is an essential element of peace making that has been sorely neglected. 

Distilling the Assembly debate, MLAs want a Mental Health Champion who is: 

  • entirely independent and autonomous (that is not affiliated to any party or grouping, not subject to the restrictions of public Commissioners and supported by an independent funding model)
  • authoritative
  • credible
  • trustworthy
  • grounded in the everyday issues faced by those affected by mental health problems.

She or he must deliver tangible benefits, meeting measurable targets. The Mental Health Champion should be: "An impartial professional with the track record and drive to radically alter the mental health and wellbeing of our people and communities." 

The Assembly agreed on the need to develop improved, expanded mental health services – listing areas where there is no or inadequate provision, and noting the need to implement the Mental Capacity Act passed at the end of the last Assembly. MLAs affirmed the need to protect and promote the interests of those with mental health problems. However, it is important to highlight that MLAs stressed repeatedly the need to address the root causes of mental distress. If we are to tackle the root, then the Mental Health Champion must work across Government. Key ministers, including justice and education, should be involved in discussions around their appointment.  

The Mental Health Champion needs to focus on reducing health inequalities. This means paying particular attention to groups who are at higher risk of developing mental health problems, who have less access to mental health support (such as rural communities), and who have fewer opportunities to protect and promote their mental health. If we are to give children the best start in life we must support the mental health of children living in poverty, disabled children, children in conflict with the law, young carers and looked after children. 

The Assembly motion called on Minister O’Neill MLA to: "explore the role and remit of a mental health champion". Her party colleague Catherine Seeley MLA anticipated that she would be ambitious, not tokenistic in delivering this. The motion did not include a timeframe but in her closing remarks Joanne Dobson MLA suggested that six months was a "reasonable time". This would fit with the mental health reviews and reports, which will be landing this year on the Minister’s desk: an evaluation of the Bamford Review’s implementation, a scoping exercise on a specialist eating disorder unit, and a review on maternal mental health services. 

The call for a mental health champion to work across government and advocate publicly for mental health, gives us all an opportunity to celebrate the incredible champions who have, for many years, shared their personal experiences of mental distress and recovery. The Assembly recognised the vital contributions of public figures: Lynda Bryans, Michelle Gildernew MLA, and (more recently) Lindsay Robinson. 

Whilst the mental health champion will have a leadership role, we can all be inspired by Lynda, Michelle and Lindsay. We can ensure that we have mental health champions in every community, school, work place, government department and council. The appointment of a mental health champion for Northern Ireland does not mean that we step back and expect them to deliver solo. Instead we must step up, stand alongside them and advocate for mental health together – for our families, communities and generations to come. 

NOTES

The full text of the Assembly motion was as follows:

"That this Assembly notes that more than one in four of the population is affected by poor mental health and well-being; further notes the significant social and economic implications that this is having on society; expresses deep concerns that, per capita, we have one of the worst records of poor mental health and wellbeing in the world; accepts that our shocking rates have been impacted directly by decades of conflict, and more recently by austerity and the resulting increased levels of unemployment and homelessness and that the issue is now intergenerational; and calls on the Minister of Health to explore the role and remit of a mental health champion to protect and promote the interests of those suffering poor mental health and well-being." [Hansard, Tuesday 28 June 2016]