Services for young in a state of flux

Thu, Jan 3, 2013, 00:00

Recent high-profile suicides have brought into question services that are available to young people going through problems

Mairéad went to see two school counsellors when she was 16 years old but says she didn’t get the help she needed.

“They were scared of me,” she recalls. “I was already self-harming at the time and I felt they were not fully qualified to deal with it.”

When her depression worsened, leading to suicidal thoughts, she went to a GP who contacted the health services. She received a letter in the post the following week saying she had an appointment in four weeks.

“That length of time for someone who is suicidal is a long time,” she says.

Recent high-profile suicides have brought into question the services that are available to young people going through problems. While help is out there for them, it can be difficult to access and when they do, they can face waiting lists.

The Health Service Executive, which oversees mental health services for young people, says anyone in urgent need will be seen immediately. But depending on what the young person is going through, there can still be delays.

In September there were more than 2,000 young people waiting for appointments with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

While 45 per cent were seen within four weeks in the last year, 12 per cent waited more than six months while one in 20 waited more than 12 months.

The services are in a state of flux. Back in 2006 a plan was put into action for how young people in difficulties could best be served through child-specific outpatient and inpatient units and teams put in to communities providing specific disciplines including consultant psychiatrists, speech therapists or social workers.

Millions of euros were pumped into the plan for the first few years during the tail end of the boom – and then the funding dropped off.

There is still a commitment to provide the units and the teams but things are moving more slowly than hoped. Coupled with funding problems is increased pressure being heaped on the system – an extra 1,500 people were referred to the services in the year up to September compared to the previous year.

Almost 10,000 young people were referred over the past year. A population boom and a greater awareness among young people about the need to seek help will mean pressure on the services will continue to rise.

Services differ greatly around the country, with waiting lists longer outside Dublin and its commuter belt.

This is because the high concentration of young people in the capital and its surrounding counties has made it vital to build units and staff the community teams.

Psychologist Anne-Marie Conlon works in Jigsaw in Navan, Co Meath, a drop-in centre for young people seeking advice about problems.

She is just off the phone from a distressed parent whose child is causing difficulties in the home and who has already been waiting months for an appointment to see someone for a mental health assessment.

Because of “restructuring”, the appointment has been pushed back further, leaving the parent with no date to get the child help.

“They are very frustrated there is nowhere for them to go,” Conlon says.

Since the centre opened a year ago, it has seen about 300 young people come through its door for help. It is a relaxed environment where every decision – from the colour of the walls to how best to get information out that they exist – is put to a youth advisory panel made up of local young people.

The centre receives funding from the HSE to provide support to people who might otherwise end up on waiting lists for health services appointments. “Some people are not all that severe and don’t need specialist support,” says Conlon.

“Jigsaw is about changing the landscape and connecting with other services. It is about linking people up with what they need,” says Lorcan Fingleton, the centre’s project manager.

The centre also trains people dealing with young people locally – parents, teachers, gardaí and GAA coaches.

It helps schools in Co Meath deal with mental health issues.

In some cases this means setting up comprehensive systems for spotting and monitoring students in difficulty and establishing mentoring among other students.

St Peter’s College in Dunboyne has more than 1,000 pupils and serves a major Dublin commuter zone. With input from Jigsaw and the local health services psychologist, a team made up of teachers, parents, students, local gardaí and past pupils meets to work out how to deal with general issues such as bullying or alcohol abuse.

Care teams compile lists of students in each year who may be having problems and who are then monitored. The school also has two counsellors who work with these teams and help students and parents on an individual basis.

Principal Eamon Gaffney says the main focus is get children learning. Mental health issues are often behind behavioural problems which stop them and others in the class from doing well, he notes.

The key is to create an atmosphere where talking about problems is normal. “Suicidal kids are often not the ones getting into trouble. They are very much under the radar and very quiet,” Gaffney adds.

But few schools have counsellors and Jigsaw centres can be found in just five towns apart from Navan – Galway, Tralee, Roscommon, Letterkenny and Tullamore.

There are plans to open a further five centres in 2013 – in Dublin 15, north Fingal, Tallaght, Clondalkin and Limerick.

“Young people who go to schools like St Peter’s and have a Jigsaw close to them are very fortunate,” says Tony Bates, founder of Headstrong, which set up the Jigsaw centres.

“I have been to places where there are major gaps. We get calls all the time from parents saying they don’t know where to turn.”