The Mental Health Rights Campaign group sent an Open Letter to the Health Minister calling for funding of mental health services in line with need. While mental health accounts for approximately 25% of health cases it currently receives only 8.5% of the health budget.
The letter was been signed by over 600 mental health service users, their families and carers from across Northern Ireland, as well as endorsed by 30 major mental health charities, professional bodies including the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Bamford Mental Health Research Centre University of Ulster, Action Mental Health, CAUSE Carers Foyle, Contact, Cruse Bereavement Care in Northern Ireland, Mindwise, East Belfast Counselling, UNISON, Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health (NIAMH), New Life Counselling and Praxis Care as well as academics Professor Colin Harvey, Professor Siobhan O’Neill and Professor Brice Dickson.
Lynda McEldowney, a volunteer with mental health support group STEPS in Draperstown and member of the Mental Health Rights Campaign explained why her group supported the Open Letter:
“We know only too well the impact of lack of funding and services. For example, STEPS regularly signposts people to GP services but the feedback we get is that they have found it hard at times to get an appointment. We also know that the waiting list for counselling is far too long in many areas if the service is even available at all. People in mental crisis have a right to and need to receive timely support”
Despite a 20-25% higher prevalence of mental health problems in Northern Ireland than in other jurisdictions of the UK, investment in mental health services is between 10-30% lower than per capita spend in England. Research has also highlighted that between 2008 and 2014 the actual spend on mental health by all Trusts has been around 25% less than that proposed.
In light of this, the letter calls for 25% of the recent additional £72 million received by the Department of Health to be allocated to mental health services, and for progressive steps to be taken to ensure that a proportionate share of health funding goes on mental health.
Their call for funding parity has been echoed by the United Nations. Under international human rights law the Northern Ireland Executive has a duty to ensure that everybody has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, including mental health. Yet in June 2016 the UN body charged with monitoring the government’s compliance with this duty expressed concern “at the lack of adequate resources provided to mental health services”.
On 15 September mental health rights campaigners, supported by Health Committee MLAs, highlighted their call to action to the Minister on the steps of Parliament Buildings. The sun shone as mental health rights campaigners invited the members of the Assembly’s Health Committee to sample a cup cake with a difference – one that displayed the paltry 8.5% of the health budget currently spent on mental health. In response the Chairperson of the Health Committee Ms. Paula Bradley MLA welcomed the call to action, noting that it was very timely as the issue of mental health funding was one the Health Committee would be looking at. She also talked about how the issue of mental health was one that ‘touched us all’ and commended campaigners for their action.
The Minister for Health Michelle O’Neill responded very quickly in writing to the Open Letter. In her response the Minister stated that mental health was one of her key priorities and that she looks forward to ‘tackling issues in relation to the funding of mental health, development of new services, improved delivery of those services, and genuine and meaningful involvement of service users at every stage’. She goes on to say that she is ‘delighted that mental health is being given such a priority in the forthcoming Programme for Government, and moving towards parity of esteem- making progress to the point where mental health gets its fair share of time, effort, attention and resources’ is a concept she is committed to. The Minister also indicates that she will respond in detail to the issues raised in the Open Letter.
The Mental Health Rights Campaign now looks forward to receiving this more detailed response from the Minister and to seeing an increased prioritisation of mental health reflected in the upcoming budget.