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Mary Lou McDonald CAMHS is not working - we need to act urgently to reform how it operates

The Sinn Féin leader reacts to the CAMHS report this week and outlines her ideas for change.

THE RECENT REPORT into the state of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services lays bare the dire state of the essential services which our children and young people should be able to rely on when they are at their most vulnerable.

Children and young people who access these services are often living through a deeply frightening and upsetting period of their life. In agonising and distressing circumstances, they have taken a hard but crucial first step. In them or their family making that all-important first call, and booking an initial appointment, they should be taking a first step on a road to recovery.

However, this report reveals what many have already warned of the CAMHS system, rather than giving support to all patients who need it, some of our young people have been failed and in some cases even had their distress and anguish prolonged by mismanagement of their cases by the very system that is supposed to help them.

Disturbing revelations

The report makes for devastating and heartbreaking reading. In particular, the stories of ‘lost children’ are gravely concerning; children referred to the system for initial appointments only to never receive the follow-up appointment that they need. This is very worrying when patients need follow-up appointments to review prescriptions or monitoring of medication.

Vulnerable children should never receive an initial appointment and begin taking potentially very powerful medication, only to slip through the cracks and get lost in the system that should be there to provide ongoing support as their medication takes effect.

The Mental Health Commission also found that lack of governance in many areas is contributing to some inefficient and unsafe CAMHS services, including the failure to manage risk and failure to fund and recruit key staff.

It is clear that CAMHS is not working as it should and that an urgent strategy is needed to tackle the crisis.

It should go without saying in 2023, that mental health is just as important as physical health. There should be no stigma about reaching out for mental health support. Mental illness can affect any person, from any walk of life, at any moment or for any reason. I want to commend all those who have fought this stigma and brought these discussions out from the cold and into the public domain to give others solidarity and hope.

Let me be clear, the CAMHS system is staffed by many hard-working, compassionate, capable and diligent staff who want to do their very best to help patients each and every day. But they are being let down by a system which is underfunded, understaffed and badly managed. Government after government has paid lip service to the idea of reforming mental health services so that they meet patients’ needs, only for these platitudes to remain mere talk and never materialise. Patients deserve better. It’s time for real change.

Change must come

This report must be a watershed moment. It cannot be allowed to cause momentary focus, before gathering dust on a shelf within the Department for Health while the government returns to business as usual. We must grasp this moment for change, to ensure that our children and young people are never let down so badly ever again.

Sinn Féin have outlined the key steps needed to deliver this. Firstly, the immediate priority must be to locate all the children who have been lost to follow up and to ensure that they have the appropriate mental health supports in place.

Secondly, we are calling for ring-fenced funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services within the health budget. This will ensure that these services get the protection and priority that they have been crying out for, for so long.

We are also calling for the development of national standards for monitoring the use of antipsychotic medications by children and young people. Vulnerable children taking these medications deserve appropriate oversight, instead of falling through the cracks.

We also need to end the scandal of staff shortages, which sees waiting lists spiral while children suffer. To do this, Sinn Féin would deliver an increase in education and training places in higher education to give us a pipeline of staff for our CAMH services. This will ensure safe staffing levels are delivered on a sustainable basis and guarantee safe levels for the long term.

I believe passionately that the solutions are there if the political will is there. The government must now urgently consider Sinn Féin’s proposals. They must not slip back into complacency when this report fades from the headlines. The children and young people of Ireland must get access to high-quality mental health support when they need it, without delay or excuses. Empty promises will not deliver that. We need to see a fully-funded, deliverable plan like Sinn Féin’s to ensure that our mental health services are fit for purpose.

Mary Lou McDonald is the leader of Sinn Féin and a TD for Dublin Central. 


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