At a discussion on what actions parties would take on mental health issues if elected, the general consensus amongst panelists was that under-resourcing, early intervention and accurate and correct diagnosis would be the issues to tackle during the lifetime of the next government.
The event, held at Wood Quay on Wednesday, was chaired by broadcaster John Bowman and organised by the Mental Health Reform group – described as “Ireland’s leading national coalition of organisations campaigning to transform mental health and well-being supports in Ireland.”
The discussion was part of First Fortnight, an annual arts festival that takes place during the first two weeks of the new year designed to open up conversations about mental health issues.
Speaking on the panel were Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty, Labour’s Kathleen Lynch – minister of state at the department of health, Fianna Fáil’s Colm Keaveney, Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin from Sinn Fein and Richard Boyd Barrett from AAA-PBP.
Hopeful candidates Ann Walsh, Michael O’Dowd and Sarah Jane Hennelly also featured from the Greens, Renua and the Social Democrats respectively.
Director of Mental Health Reform Dr. Shari McDaid opened the event by presenting an overview of how mental health treatment in Ireland took the form of asylums, saying that we are now in an era of “post-institutionalisation”. She spoke of the new reality of an openness in discussing mental health, but the danger of those with difficulties having nowhere to go. Choices, access and support were cited as the services needed to improve the situation. Dr. McDaid also bemoaned a lack of information on the figures accessing services and how they do so.
When it came to the issue of young people and mental health, candidates focused in on different undertakings to improve the situation. Michael O’Dowd from Renua observed that the under resourcing of health clinics in third-level institutions meant that universities had planned to bring in nominal fees for use. O’Dowd warned against this, stating that such fees may be low when introduced, but they have a tendency to rise.
Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on mental health Colm Keaveney spoke about the possibilities of trialling cognitive behavioural therapy in schools, citing a pilot study currently on-going in the UK. Sarah Jane Hennely from the SocDems stated that long term planning in early intervention was necessary, along with helping parents who themselves may be struggling with mental health.
Ann Walsh from the Green Party said that there needed to be a breakaway from the revolving door system when it comes to primary care, and that more community based supports and follow up services should be looked at, stating that the more collective a society is the less it will experience mental health problems.
Supports in schools were highlighted as a necessity, with Sinn Fein’s Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin stating that he would like to see schools play a larger part in recognising when a young person is in need, and saying that the recruitment of more supports like guidance counsellors would help make this happen.
Minister Lynch spoke of the success of the Jigsaw centres for young people, with news that three more such facilities are currently in the process of opening. In response to a statement from 17 year old member of the audience about treatment facilities and counselling services being cold, dreary places, she said she hoped these Jigsaw centres designed with young people in mind would help alleviate the situation.
Many of the points above were agreed on by the panelists, however Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty and PBP/AAA TD Richard Boyd Barrett did clash over the issue of children and young people on medication. Boyd Barrett contended that in many cases this is seen as a quick fix by overworked and under resourced medical personnel, while Doherty rejected his claims as anecdotal.
After the event however many audience members who had put questions to the panel drawing on their own experiences of mental health felt that they hadn’t been given sufficient answers. The point was made that those facing mental health difficulties should be brought into the conversation when it comes to government policy on a broader level, and also with their individual GPs and healthcare providers to have autonomy in choosing their care and treatment.
One young women who had spoken of her experiences when a GP told her she had no reason to be depressed felt that claims from Lynch that future doctors would be trained to be more sensitive to people’s’ situations didn’t do enough to tackle the problem with doctors currently practicing.
The issue of the cost to young people that counselling and drugs incur was also not brought up by any of the panelists as an issue to tackle, something which was noted by audience members after the event. The discussion was recorded by the organisers and will appear online.