Analysis: Teenager case a wake-up call for decision-makers

Young Irish people are being detained abroad because of a lack of services here

Children face long waiting lists for mental health services, responses that don’t meet their needs and gaping holes in specialist services.

Perhaps most disturbing is the human rights violation that involves children being routinely admitted into adult inpatient units.

But yesterday's case in the High Court, played out over a number of months, highlights another shocking aspect of youth mental health services.

Young people in distress are being detained abroad – often against their will – because there aren’t suitable specialised services at home.


In this case, the young person didn’t even have a mental illness and wouldn’t have been detained under Irish law.

Once again, it casts a spotlight on the inadequacy of our youth mental health services and its ability to cope to meet the needs of vulnerable people. Much of the mental health sector has suffered from a major loss of staffing and resources since the economic crisis.

There has, at least, been additional investment in the adolescent sector over recent times. There were more than 40 staff appointed to community teams last year, while the number of child and adolescent consultant posts has increased significantly.

But there is ongoing evidence to show community teams and inpatient services are still struggling to cope with demand.

Last year, nearly 90 children and adolescents – or one in five of all young inpatients in need of support – were admitted to adult psychiatric wards.

This is despite repeated criticism by the Inspector for Mental Health Services, who previously described the practice as “inexcusable and countertherapeutic”.

In December 2011 the official code of practice relating to admission of children under the Mental Health Act 2001 came into effect. It stated that apart from exceptional circumstances “no child is to be admitted to the adult unit of a psychiatric hospital”.

In addition, more than 2,800 young people were stuck on mental health waiting lists last year. More than 400 waiting for more than a year. This is despite all research showing that early intervention is crucial in tackling problems and delays can have lifelong effects.

Groups such as the Children’s Mental Health Coalition have pointed to some of the underlying problems, such as the bewildering number of agencies involved in the sector and the underfunding in comparison with our European neighbours.

Some of the coalition’s recommendations include making child adolescent services more accessible through the provision of clear information to young people and their families. It also says more investment is needed for specialist services to ensure cases do not reach crisis point.

Mr Justice Seamus Noonan noted the legal costs involved – estimated at more than €1 million – would have provided for an appropriate place for the 18-year-old in Ireland.

If money can be found to fund legal costs surely it can be sourced for some of the most difficult cases involving our most vulnerable citizens.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent