Prevention must be the top priority for Northern Ireland's Mental Health Champion

23 February 2016

Whilst mental health has secured cross-party support in Stormont, progress to address the mental health challenges facing our society has been glacial.

From talking with politicians, I know that there is genuine and heartfelt political good will – often informed by personal, family and constituent experience of mental distress. However, I think we need to face a hard reality that this has not been translated into real change in individuals’, families’ and communities’ lives across Northern Ireland during this Assembly term.

I support the call for a Mental Health Champion in the hope that this role will be an asset to all mental health advocates in Northern Ireland.

I was born and reared in Belfast, and have worked in Northern Ireland with the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health. In the Mental Health Foundation I am involved in all our work in Northern Ireland.

I’m personally and professionally invested in getting a move on. My take is that the Assembly elections provide the opportunity for parties and independents to set out their stalls and make specific commitments on mental health, which we can hold them to account on over the next five years. 

The top five priorities 

Here are my top five priorities for politicians…and the new Champion. 

  1. Invest in prevention and early intervention at all stages of the life course beginning with maternal mental health and continuing into later life; with a strong focus on people with long-term physical health conditions.
  2. Address the mental health legacy of the conflict by developing trauma informed approaches within communities and services that are founded on our resilience and assets as a society.
  3. Support individuals and communities who experience mental health inequalities and who live in poverty. 
  4. Promote mental healthy employment by developing psychologically informed workplaces in the public, private, voluntary and community sectors.
  5. Support everyone’s mental health literacy so that we can reduce stigma and discrimination, support each other, and know how to look after our own mental health…and when we need services to recover from mental distress.  

Finding Out What Works

Across all of these priorities, we need to invest in research to ensure that we get a clear picture of what the mental health issues are, who they affect, and what works to build a mentally healthy society. At the moment only 5.5% of health research funding goes to mental health.

Preventing Mental Health Problems

The Mental Health Foundation’s contribution focuses on prevention:

  • preventing mental health problems from developing in the first instance,
  • preventing mental health problems from getting any worse by providing early interventions to individuals and families experiencing distress, and
  • preventing mental health problems from having long-term or life-long impacts by supporting recovery.

As a research charity we know that the evidence exists to achieve the transformation of Northern Ireland’s mental health through prioritisation of investment in prevention. We champion innovative approaches to peer support and self-management illustrated in our innovation programmes and public information resources. We recognise the importance of public services (including health, social services, education, housing, social security and criminal justice) to prevention; and work collaboratively with services, public bodies and government.

Mental Health Inequalities 

Particular groups have higher rates of mental health problems, and often these are people who experience other inequalities and who live in poverty. The reasons for this are:

  • greater exposure to social, economic and environmental risks
  • the cumulative effects of adverse life experiences such as homelessness, violence, and ill health across the life course beginning in pregnancy
  • lesser opportunity to have access to the things that protect our mental health: positive nurturing relationships, stable housing, quality education, a safe community, adequate income, and good quality employment.  

People with existing mental health problems and their families often experience particular inequalities. We want to see the updating of equality legislation in Northern Ireland so that everyone across the UK has the same protections. The rest of the UK got new equality legislation in 2010, so we think its time.

The prospect of Northern Ireland’s first mental health summit is exciting as is the opportunity presented by the Assembly elections. I’m optimistic about all that we could achieve together in the next five years and look forward to the Mental Health Foundation’s contribution. 

Find out more about our work in Northern Ireland