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Column Budgeting our depression? Funding cuts are disastrous to mental health

Cuts to medical card allowances and social welfare payments have a direct impact on peoples’ the mental health – I know because I am one of those affected, writes Kate Bellamy.

IN A BEDROOM, a kitchen, an office, the street, somewhere someone is thinking about ending their own life. As you read this, someone might be doing it.

The statistics show the number of suicides in Ireland has risen from 424 people a year in 2008 to 507 in 2012. We’re the fourth highest in the EU for suicides among young people – no surprise given the lack of respect and belief instilled in us by constant repetition of the phrase ‘culture of dependency’. Wexford, where I live, has the third highest suicide rate in the country. Yet this silent killer is only acknowledged when it’s too late.

Mental health is vastly under-estimated for its all-encompassing effects, its impact on employment, family welfare and cost to the patient. There is a direct link between the economic downturn and the negative effect on the country’s mental welfare as cuts to vital health services as well as personal benefits mean our health – that which is meant to be our wealth – becomes the lowest priority personally and politically.

Social welfare payment cuts, medical card allowance thresholds and the myriad other monetary implications caused by tax hikes, cutbacks and budgeting all affect the rate of suicides in this country. Economic instability is both a symptom and a result of poor mental health.

Sometimes those with mental health problems are unable to work due to their situation or the discrimination of others. Alternatively their illness is treated as less important, less debilitating than a physical impairment. But just because you can’t see someone’s wounds doesn’t mean they’re not there.

My own story

When I visited my GP in November 2012 I’d already had depression for some time, years really. It was depression that caused me to give up work in Belfast and move back to Wexford. Depression that made me self-harm and become socially isolated. Depression that had nearly driven me to suicide.

The strain finally got too much after a near nervous breakdown the only available option to me, without a medical card, was to present at A&E and threaten to injure myself to get direct treatment or wait for the opportunity for free counselling to come up. If you’re already feeling suicidal either option is bleak.

Sometimes the effort of even opening your mouth can prove too much, which is why so many people with mental illness suffer in silence. Thankfully, I managed to hang on and get help. It wasn’t too late for me, but for many it is and this is compounded by the government attitude to those in need.

Despite having chronic depression, I’ve recently stopped taking my prescribed Prozac. I can’t afford it. That puts my life at risk. I also have two other ongoing conditions which require three-monthly GP visits and monthly prescriptions totalling up to and above €100 a month. One item on my prescription costs €65 alone. But unfortunately when I’m balancing my own budget, medication has been slipping further and further down the list.

I am currently in my sixth or seventh medical card appeal process but am repeatedly turned down as my social welfare payment of €144 registers me over the hardship threshold.

I don’t want this to be a sob story. I got help, through counselling, provided by a Wexford service that, like many, relies on volunteers. However we do need to draw attention to the many that go under the radar.

I wrote a letter to Brendan Howlin, TD for Wexford and Minister for Public Expenditure, whose manifesto speaks of hope and optimism. I told him I was unable to recognise this. He says he stands for fairness but the Budget 2014 does not seem fair to me.

Vital services cut

A free drop-in service that had helped more than 399 families touched by mental illness used to run in several locations across County Wexford but was cut last year to alternate Wednesday mornings in the towns of Wexford and New Ross. Organisations such as Grow, Aware and 1Life try to address the problem but without government backing and support it just isn’t enough.

Mental Health Reform, promoters of improved and prioritised mental health in Ireland, highlight other aspects of the budget that impact on mental health; the discontinuation of the telephone allowance increasing social isolation and the increase in rent contribution for couples adding strain to relationships. They also report that there is no extension of the Supported Employment programme for those with a mental disability that want to work.

The increase in prescription charges also adds to the mounting problems, problems that the Government has a responsibility to address before we needlessly lose any more of our population because the people in charge wouldn’t listen.

While there is some additional funding for social housing for people with disabilities this does not extend to those transitioning from HSE mental health services back into the community. This is how we treat people that aren’t well. When you consider one in ten adults has at some time experienced poor mental health, your dad; sister; boss; whoever, how can we consider segregating sufferers?

Unfortunately suicide remains one of Ireland’s biggest killers. Mental health awareness needs to be voraciously reinforced until the stigma attached is completely removed and it is recognised as being as in need of monetary as well as social support.

It may not be a popular opinion, but I believe those suffering from any kind of mental illness should be entitled to medical cards and should be prioritised for receiving treatment. The cost of not being able to buy vital medication is too high; it’s a life.

Kate Bellamy is a TV and features writer online and in print in Ireland and the UK writing on contemporary women’s issues and television – where possible combining the two. Kate was shortlisted for the Vogue Young Writers Talent Contest this year. She can found tweeting @_KateMate

Read: Recognising the warning signs can prevent suicides

Column: ‘I saw him pull himself up onto the railing of the footbridge’

Read: One in five young people is experiencing a mental disorder – RCSI

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