Belfast Mental Health Rights Group celebrates 10 years campaigning success

Still blazing the campaign trail to improve mental health services 10 years after their first meeting in October 2006, members of BMHRG are still passionate and determined in their efforts to get change.

It started with one meeting 10 years ago. Stephanie Green Development Worker with PPR who has been working with the group since its inception tells the story:

 ‘Back in 2006 I was talking to groups in North Belfast and spoke to Eileen Weir who was with the newly formed suicide prevention group on the Shankill RAYS. She said ‘you must speak to Carol and Gerard McCartan’ – which I did. They lost their son Danny to suicide in 2006. They sat patiently talking through the litany of failures in the system which contributed to Danny’s death.  Their story was beyond moving it was transformative as  it became clear the layers of change that would be needed in the health system to prevent further tragedies.  It was the impetus to put the vision of the late Inez McCormack, founder of PPR, into practice with regard to mental health services.  Gerard and Carol and many others since in similar circumstances totally embraced Inez’s idea of bringing the power of human rights out from the confines of academia and lawyers to those who needed them the most.

The Belfast Mental Health Rights Group is made up of people affected by, or who are carers of someone with, mental health issues and family members who have lost their loved one to suicide. Stephanie Green Development paid tribute to the group members.

Tribute

‘I have been so privileged to work with this very special group of people over the past decade. Their courage and determination to make services better for other people is amazing. Week in week out they strive to improve the systems which have often failed them or their loved ones often with tragic consequences. Many of them struggle for changes despite their own personal physical or mental health problems.

Our longest standing member Sally Stitt now in her 80’s has been there from day 1 and still comes when her caring role for her dear husband Tom allows. The group is like a family with everyone looking out for each other.’

Success

Campaign successes have included: getting the ‘Card before you Leave’ appointment system implemented (an appointment system which provides a full psychiatric assessment to A&E patients who would have in years gone by been discharged with no follow up);improvements to family involvement in Serious Adverse Incident Reviews; and the inclusion of mental health in the government’s Choose Well public information campaign . Yet there is no time to rest on any laurels! As Grace Cassidy BMHRG member since 2007 puts it,

‘Yes, there have been successes which we are proud of but there is still much more to do – there are still problems getting help when you need it at A&E, GPs surgeries and in follow up care and the number of suicides is still far too high - 318 in 2015. Also, when you do get change such as ‘Card before you Leave’ there are real issues about how the health service monitors and evaluates the changes. Without appropriate data being collected - neither we nor the government can measure how effective changes in services are. I think there needs to be more focus on this to make sure that scarce resources are being used wisely.’

Growth in numbers

Reflecting on the growth of the group over recent years Kathy Gilliland, group member since 2008 reflected:

‘We started of as a small group of people from North Belfast and the Shankill. We then became Belfast wide and since 2012 have grown into a regional network of groups and individuals now called the Mental Health Rights Campaign. It’s so uplifting and inspiring when we can get together and work on campaigns like the recent Unfair Share event  up at Stormont which called for mental health to have its fair share of the health budget after decades of underinvestment. Standing together, united, created a powerful picture to MLAs on the Health Committee.  It was also good fun ...giving out buns to MLAs with the Unfair Share logo on it! I had to give off to one as he wanted to eat it before we got the photo ...no such thing as a free lunch!’

Recent work – The SAFER Campaign

Commenting on the recent launch of their SAFER Campaign which calls for more appropriate and timely support for families bereaved by suicide, Bobby Duffin, with the group since 2009 said,

‘This is something new for us in that the Minister responsible for making decisions about one of the changes we have called for is the Minister for Justice. To date all our calls for change have been to the Health Minister. It ties in well with the Protect Life Strategy which recognises that suicide prevention is a cross departmental issue. We look forward to engaging with Claire Sugden on what we think is a straightforward, low cost measure which would get help to more families more quickly. Family members are known to be 3 times more at risk of taking their own life so timely support is very important.  We are calling for bereaved families to be automatically referred to support systems very much like the Victim Support automatic referral system for victims of crime. Of course, as in that system, individuals can refuse services at any time – so it becomes more ‘opt out’ than ‘opt in.’

Some of the work of the group may be less visible as it focuses on individual support of family members going through Serious Adverse Incident Reviews, making complaints and attending inquests. Stephanie Green PPR explains,

‘This work unpacks some of the issues we hear about such as delays at A&E, follow up care and so on. For me, the common theme in these cases is often ‘I wasn’t listened to,’ either  coming from the person in crisis or their family members/carers frustrated in their attempts to get help.’

On being listened to...

The theme of not being listened to extends into campaign work. The group came up with a checklist based on human rights standards, to evidence whether they were being actively listened to in meetings with health officials (which they named Participation Indicators). When it became clear that they were not being listened to they used various tactics e.g. going to the media, writing to the Health Minister to alter this after all other attempts like tabling reports about their participation at the meetings themselves failed. This did not go down well, however, with some health officials. Through a Freedom of Information request the group found an email in which a senior health official condemned the methods of the group stating that ‘as far as I am concerned they have excluded themselves’ – referring to the exclusion of the group from the evaluation process by the HSCB of the ‘Card before you Leave’ appointment scheme despite the group being members of the implementation board.

This defensive approach by the health official was not a one off. Group member Grace Cassidy, remembers a meeting with senior officials from the Belfast Trust:

 ‘When the group explained the methods they may use as a campaigning group – one official became very defensive and stated’ we have a sting in our tail too’ We were shocked - many of us were still raw at losing family members to suicide or struggling to get help for our loved ones – these words felt very threatening.  We were a new group then but now such defensive or threatening postures only spur us on with our struggle for changes in services.’

Julie Magee, group member since 2011 said:

 ‘We are celebrating 10 years but we really want to thank all the groups and individuals who been part of the work or supported it  - without them all this would not have happened.’

Gerard McCartan now Chairperson of PPR made one final point

‘I think Inez would be proud of what we have achieved – the growth of the campaign network and the changes initiated by those affected by the issues  not just regarding mental health services but the other campaigns PPR supports affected groups on such as housing, welfare, asylum seekers and many others’.