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Column: Last year's multi-million euro underspend in mental health is unacceptable

In a year when many families and communities lost a child or young person to suicide, it makes no sense that €29 million pledged to be spent on mental health was not used, writes Tanya Ward.

Tanya Ward Children's Rights Alliance

YOU MAY GROW out of almost everything in your life, they say, but never your childhood. This is why we place a value on childhood and it is why investing in young lives is vitally important – not only for children themselves, but for society at large. This is an age-old and well-accepted pearl of wisdom.

Yesterday, the Children’s Rights Alliance launched Report Card 2013, the fifth edition of our annual series, which scrutinises Government progress on its commitments to children as set out in the Programme for Government 2011-2016. We all know that you should never, ever make a promise to a child that you cannot keep – which is why we try to find out if the Government is doing what it pledged for children.

Mediocre grades

We awarded Government an overall ‘C’ grade for their work in 2012. Of the twenty commitments we track, the awards were a mixed bag, ranging from an ‘A’ for the children’s referendum to an ‘F’ for child poverty. And in-between there were many mediocre grades.

As always with these things, the devil is in the detail. Take the chapter on the right to health, which got a disappointing ‘D’ grade overall. Four commitments were tracked and each got a variant of a ‘D’ grade. The Report Card explores whether progress has been made, and if not, why not?

Take the case of ‘Primary Care’. Here, the Government promised in July 2012 to recruit 272 front line health staff, including public health nurses and speech and language therapists, and it pledged €20 million to fund these posts. By the end of 2012, no post was filled and the funding was redirected elsewhere by the HSE. The Government also pledged to remove GP fees on a phased basis beginning with those with long term-illnesses, a move that would hugely benefit children and families access to healthcare.

Budget 2012 allocated €15 million for this reform but as necessary legislation was not in place, the funds were used to make up financial deficits in the HSE. We were quite shocked by this and frankly, we believe that it is unacceptable. Monies promised should be ring-fenced for their rightful purpose. To do otherwise, is not fair and is like stealing the promises you have made to children and families.

Mental health

The story gets even murkier when you look at ‘Mental Health’. To be fair, during 2012, there were some notable positive steps to improve mental health services to children. For us, these were however overshadowed by the fact that, of the €35 million of funding promised and allocated for community mental health teams, only approximately €6 million was spent. As with primary care, the remaining millions of euro were used to tackle cost overruns in other parts of the health services.

To me, it beggars belief that this could happen, especially in a year when many families and communities lost a child or young person to suicide. We all know that urgent action is needed to combat bullying and suicide among Ireland’s youth. The 2012 My World survey found that nearly 10 per cent of adolescents and 20 per cent of young adults reported significant personal problems they felt needed professional help but did not seek it. I did not think that the critical importance of an effective and accessible national mental health service for children and young people needed to be spelt out – but perhaps it does?  How €29 million pledged to be spent on mental health could not be used as planned requires immediate answers from the Department of Health.

But this is not just about the Department of Health. If Government wants to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child then each Government department has to play its role and prioritise children effectively, investing vital funds to make a real difference to children’s lives. They need to work like a team and strive to be at the very top of their game. As Report Card 2013 has once again shown, it is not enough to just make promises. Keeping your promises to children is the key.

Tanya Ward is the Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance.

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Tanya Ward  / Children's Rights Alliance

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