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'The government have put their funding into mental health campaigns rather than services'

If we’re going to ask people to talk up, then we must have people to listen, writes Una Power.

OVER THE PAST few years a mantra has echoed around the country when it comes to mental health: “Please Talk”.

Feeling down? Please Talk. Crippled with anxiety? Please Talk. Suffering from an eating disorder? Please Talk.

It is a wonderful phrase when you first see it. It signifies openness, acceptance, and positivity. And I truly believe that we should be encouraging people to talk about their mental health.

But there is a caveat. If we’re going to ask people to talk up, then we must have people to listen.

2,000 extra staff needed

Recently figures were released showing that almost 2,000 extra staff are required if we are to hit staffing targets set out in A Vision for Change. This document, which set out a new approach to mental health care in Ireland, was published 11 years ago. Over a decade later, the necessary resources still haven’t been put in place.

Over the last number of years Ireland has been wracked with scandals when it comes to mental health care. Only last month there was a story about how 2,400 children and adolescents were on waiting lists for mental health services. 218 of these were on it for more than a year.

In May another story broke regarding the temporary closure of beds in a children’s mental health facility due to a shortage of nursing staff. Half of the 22 beds in Linn Dara were closed. The Vision for Change document stipulated the need for 100 inpatient beds for children and adolescents in mental health services. Following this closure the number stands at 52.

Speaking on the matter the Psychiatric Nurses Association said that loss of these beds would lead to “more children being inappropriately admitted to adult mental health units”.

No change at grassroots level

It seems every few months we are shockingly reminded that our services are not up to scratch due to a lack of resourcing. Beds are not available. Staff are overworked and overextended. Waiting lists are full and, as more people are encouraged to talk up and approach services, these are likely to get even longer.

In the decade since the publication of A Vision for Change we have seen positive changes when it comes to mental health care in Ireland, but these have been very much at a grassroots level.  People have come forward and told their stories. People have chipped away at the stigma and encouraged others to be brave and seek treatment.

The government has piggybacked on this movement. They have put their funding into mental health campaigns rather than services. The focus has been primarily on awareness and training, which are certainly key aspects in tackling mental health problems, but we need the fundamental elements of providing counselling and hands on, day-to-day services.

State abdicated in its duty

Relying solely on the mantra of “Please Talk” is an abdication by the State in its duty to provide services for mental health care. It is a means to deflect from the chronic under resourcing in mental health care, while donning the appearance of tackling the issue.

Many who have suffered from mental health issues know that talking up about them is an important first step. But they also know that there is a lot of work to be done thereafter. Speaking up about your mental health issues is intense and challenging. Letting people in and opening up about your struggles is difficult. When you do speak there is a certain solace and relief.

But that fades away when you are faced with what seems like an interminable waiting time to see a counsellor. Or when you are turned away from inpatient treatment because there simply aren’t enough beds.

Needing someone to listen

When you talk, you need someone to listen. Someone who is equipped and trained to help you through the process of recovery. It is up to the government to ensure that that person is there and ready to work with you.

11 years on from the publication of A Vision for Change the government must learn to take their own strategy seriously. They must engage with the service providers who are calling out for more staffing. They must hear the campaigners when they say that resources and funding need to be ring-fenced for mental health services.

In short the government must listen to a new mantra: Please Listen, Please Act.

Una Power is the Green Party’s Women’s Officer and representative in Killiney-Shankill. 

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