Study calls for cross-Border strategy on mental health


People in the Republic appear to experience significantly lower levels of psychological distress compared with those in Northern Ireland, according to a report by the Centre for Cross Border Studies and the Institute of Public Health.

The study published yesterday calls for a pooling of knowledge, expertise and resources across the border in order to develop effective mental-health promotion policies on an all island basis.

The report was carried out by researchers from the Centre for Health Promotion Studies at NUI Galway.

The Minister of State for Health, Mr Tim O'Malley, at the launch said there was "increasing recognition, both nationally and internationally, of the need to address mental health as an integral part of improving overall health and well-being".

According to the report's lead author, Dr Margaret Barry, the report demonstrates the importance of positive mental health and the need to put it on national and cross-Border health agendas.

"The focus of the report is not on mental illness and treatment services but rather on positive mental health and the factors that support and protect positive health and well-being," she told The Irish Times.

Researchers looked at five current examples of cross-Border mental health-promotion projects, covering areas such as post-natal depression, public awareness of suicide and mental health in rural communities, in making an analysis and formulating the report's recommendations.

They found that data on the mental status of the population have not been gathered in a systematic and co-ordinated way.

"A common information system would be most beneficial on this island for both mental and physical health purposes," the authors say. "Particularly given the move within Europe for harmonisation of data systems, both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be obliged in some way to follow this directive in order to facilitate necessary comparisons with neighbouring countries."

Co-author Ms Sharon Friel says harmonisation of data collection is extremely important "if the true measure of mental health and well being is to be captured in a diversity of population". Setting priorities and developing interventions based on this identification of at- risk groups is made easier by accurate data, she adds.

The report also identifies a lack of support and training available to new projects embarking on cross-Border working for the first time. It states there is limited evaluation of cross-Border co-operation.

"As a result we have little empirical evidence of whether the mechanisms used at present are most effective or whether the objectives of cross-Border co-operation are being achieved."

The authors note that co-operation on health promotion is on the agendas of the North-South Ministerial Council but add: "It is now timely to give greater visibility to mental-health promotion on this agenda and to agree on priority areas and the types of support needed for co-operation in terms of formal structure and dedicated funding."

In an introduction to the report, senior officials in the Department of Health and Children in the Republic and the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland say they recognise the need for a more structured approach. Mr Shay McGovern and Mr Pat Osborne say mental-health promotion will be an integral component of the North-South collaboration programme. They note the reports recommendations "are challenging but attainable".

Mental health problems are experienced by one in four people in their lifetime. The incidence of suicide and depression are increasing in the Republic and Northern Ireland. According to the World Health Organisation, depression will be second only to heart disease in the global burden of disease by 2020.