Almost half of HSE youth mental health service teams have staff vacancies, giving rise to waiting lists, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Staff shortages, and difficulty in recruitment and retention of consultants in particular, has been attributed as the main reason behind the waiting lists for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs).
The most recent figures show more than 2,500 children and adolescents are on waiting lists for Camhs, while a further 6,300 under 18-year-olds are waiting for an initial primary care psychological appointment.
The HSE currently has 71 teams for its Camhs programme, of which only 60 per cent have the recommended 13 staff members, comprising 11 clinicians and two support staff, the health service said.
Speaking at the Oireachtas Children and Youth Affairs committee on Wednesday, Dr Brendan Doody, clinical director of Camhs at the Linn Dara centre in Ballyfermot, said that you cannot deliver the optimal service without proper staffing.
“All our teams are not at the full complement. Some of this is funding for new posts, some of this is retention of staff,” he said “The frustrations is that we cannot provide the level of service [we want]. At one point we had to close half of our unit due to staff shortages.”
“On the one hand, you’re developing new posts and at the same time you have retirements. Before we fill all the posts permanently, it’s going to take a number of years. As we created more specialised services, existing consultants take up these posts. So we fill a post here and that creates a vacancy somewhere else.”
He added: “Although there has been progress, it hasn’t been at the pace we would like.You need the staff to deliver that.”
Jim Ryan, assistant national director of the HSE mental health operations, said the service is "making efforts" but that currently "there are still deficits".
“I’ve worked in mental health services for 15-plus years, I genuinely think things are getting better. We have a regulator in charge now, we have a mental health act in place. There’s a lot of basic building blocks but mental health was coming from a very low level,” Mr Ryan said.
The HSE mental health service has invested money into universities to increase the number of nursing graduates by 60, he added.
Jigsaw, the HSE-funded mental health organisation, said that around one-third of young people experience daily mental health struggles.
Dr Joseph Duffy, chief executive of Jigsaw, said young people are experiencing increased levels of anxiety and depression as a result of the "big issues in society" such as climate change, homelessness, pressure to succeed academically and the treatment of minorities.
Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers said that improving mental health services and reducing waiting lists "has to be a priority".
“We are failing young people in this country and we are committing them to lifelong mental health issues that they won’t be able to recover from,” she said. “The most basic thing a country can do for its citizens is care for its health.”