Planned new programmes to reduce suicide and self-harm will be the most likely and immediate casualties of the failure to fill new mental health posts, the president of the Irish College of Psychiatry has warned.
Dr Anthony McCarthy was reacting to reports in yesterday's Irish Times that mental health posts that had been announced earlier this year may not now be filled due to cost overruns.
Money that had been earmarked for the recruitment of hundreds of new staff in the mental health services is now at risk as a result of overspending elsewhere in health service.
Some €35 million had been announced to fund the recruitment of 477 professionals to bolster and modernise mental health services. None of those posts has been filled and the Health Service Executive said the recruitment process was ongoing. However, internal documents seen by The Irish Times suggest few of the posts will be filled by year-end.
Dr McCarthy said it was a repeat of what had happened last year. “Mental health services are so personnel dependent. It’s not about big expensive machinery or expensive facilities. The services in the community are about having professional people in the community – the psychiatric nurses, the psychotherapists, the social workers, the psychiatrists. Really I think the Minister [of State for mental health services, Kathleen Lynch] has done everything she can to ring-fence these funds, has fought as hard as possible. But it seems she is losing the battle. What we have to hope is that the new mental health services directorate can be more effective in ensuring funds for mental health services are not stolen.”
He said new programmes planned to reduce suicide and self-harm would most likely now be “out the window” and the “most vulnerable will be hit again”.
The Psychiatric Nurses Association said it was "absolutely vital" that the promised new staff were recruited "if any semblance of a community mental health service is to remain in this country".
General secretary of the PNA, Des Kavanagh, said his members were “alarmed” and that in many cases community services had been closed or reduced in order to maintain staffing in hospital units.
The concerns come a year after a similar occurrence when spending overruns in other sectors of the HSE meant funding for mental health services had to be drawn on to plug gaps.
Mr Kavanagh said when the association met Ms Lynch, it warned her money set aside for the services should be ring-fenced. "The Minister assured us that her department had learned the lessons of 2012 and could guarantee us that the €35 million committed in the budget for mental health services would not be abused or misused by the HSE but would deliver the new staff as promised.
“It is now up to the Minister to deliver on her commitments and to tell the HSE that the mental health budget is not a contingency fund to be used to plug holes across the health budget.”
Fianna Fáil spokesman on health, Robert Troy, TD, said there could be no question of Dr Reilly "being allowed to use money set aside for vital investment in mental health to again mask his failure to deliver savings and reform in the health service. Suicide prevention and mental health services are desperately in need of the 477 posts that are to be filled with the promised €35 million investment this year".