North braced for mental health crisis as direct result of pandemic

One of the ‘greatest challenges’ facing Northern Ireland, Swann says

Stormont health minister Robin Swann warned the already crisis-struck health service is not equipped to deal with the “heightened levels” of demand. File photograph: iStock

Stormont health minister Robin Swann warned the already crisis-struck health service is not equipped to deal with the “heightened levels” of demand. File photograph: iStock

 

The North is bracing itself for a surge in mental health needs by up to a third as a direct result of the pandemic.

Describing it as one of the “greatest challenges” facing the region, Stormont health minister Robin Swann warned the already crisis-struck health service is not equipped to deal with the “heightened levels” of demand.

Patients are already languishing in emergency departments because they can not be admitted for care over a shortage of beds, children as young as eight have developed eating disorders and there is an epidemic of loneliness among older people.

“The Covid 19 pandemic and restrictions to everyday life has had and will continue to have a significant impact on our population’s mental health,” he told the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“It is currently estimated that the long term effects of the pandemic may create up to 32 per cent more referrals over the next three years.”

Mr Swann said the rise “will include some of those who have suffered from the effects of restrictions and regulations that have been put in place.”

Pandemic

Defending the Stormont Executive’s handling of the pandemic, he said mental health impacts “are not just being experienced here in Northern Ireland, they are being experienced across the UK, the Republic of Ireland and every other country where this virus has had serious impacts, on not just the physical health of people but also the mental health of people.”

“We have never faced in our lifetimes a pandemic like this and I hope that we never have to face it again, where we have had to take the decisions that we have as an Executive,” he said.

Officials have predicted more than 19,000 more referrals for adults needing mental health care up to 2024, 5,000 more referrals to psychological services and over 24,000 more unscheduled care contacts.

The sharp increase in referrals comes at “a time when mental health services are already under significant pressure” with “inpatient mental health services under extreme demand”, Mr Swann said.

Only four in ten people in the North with mental health problems are able to get effective treatment, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Those with severe and enduring mental illness live up to 20 years less than others because of poor physical health.

“We hear of stories of patients who have to wait very long periods in emergency departments under supervision as no beds are available in mental health and of patients on mattresses on floors,” admitted Mr Swann.

“Community mental health services are also experiencing increased referrals and heightened levels of acuity.

“I have heard stories of patients desperately seeking help without being able to receive the help they need. Patients as young as eight needing specialist help for eating disorders, older people starved of human contact without the ability to get help for the mental illness caused by loneliness.”

More than 2,400 adults and over 260 children and young people are currently waiting longer more than three months to be seen by a mental health specialist.

More than 700 adults and over 90 children and young people are waiting longer than a year.

Overhaul

Launching a 10 year “blueprint” to overhaul mental health services, Mr Swann said official estimates show funding for mental health in the North is 27 per cent lower than in England and 20 per cent below that in the Republic.

“That is even though the mental health need is assessed as up to 25 per cent higher here than in England,” he added.

The report shows inpatient mental health beds operate “consistently” at 100 per cent occupancy, with the system operating in “crisis mode”.

Proposed reforms include the creation of a standalone single mental health service, new mental health hubs and tackling staff shortages, running at around a fifth among mental health nurses and psychiatry posts.

Mr Swann said the package will need £1.2 billion in funding over the next ten years but he accepted his department doesn’t have the money – unless “significant levels” of other health services are “ceased” and will need to seek it elsewhere.