Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Mental Health During and Post Covid-19: Statements


1:45 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)

I thank the Minister of State. Our mental health service capacity was in crisis before Covid-19 first arrived on our shores. The pandemic has only further exposed the gaps that exist in our mental health system. As it stands, more than 2,500 children are waiting for access to child and adolescent mental health services and over 10,000 people are waiting for a psychology appointment through our primary care service. Can we set an ambition to dramatically impact those waiting lists by the end of the year? It would be helpful if the Minister of State would outline the Government's plans to change those figures, if nothing else, to ensure that we are not back in the same situation at Christmas.

We are often bombarded with statistics when it comes to waiting lists in our health service. The numbers are stark but behind them are children and young people who are struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders and many other health challenges. There are many stigmas attached to mental health. I have spoken to a number of young people in recent months. In some cases I have done so off my own bat and, in other cases, I have been asked to do so. It is a difficult situation. Mental health issues often become quite pronounced before a person reaches out to a doctor or someone else for help. It is good when they reach out and it is the beginning of a process.

In this House, we all know the sheer number of hoops young people need to jump through in order to access services. We should not be putting bureaucratic or cost barriers in the way of people's mental distress. It should not matter what door a person walks through, as I have said previously. They should not have to worry about the convoluted way in which they have to access services, they should simply be able to access them. The mental health service should be seamlessly integrated and allow different providers to refer patients to the most appropriate service in a timely manner.

In a report into the impact of Covid-19 on the mental health services in Ireland, leading Irish psychiatrists, including the HSE national clinical lead on psychosis, Dr. Karen O'Connor, warned that a "tsunami of mental health need" will arise some time after the peak of the initial pandemic. The report stated the tsunami will persist for months, if not years, and will be compounded by the economic impact of the pandemic. That is awful. It is terrifying to think about but Dr. O'Connor is summarising what we all knew at the back of our heads. We collectively need to plan for this tsunami. The service is already under strain so one can imagine what lies ahead.

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on the collective mental health of the nation. I have spoken about that in the past, particularly of its impact on the elderly. I have two elderly parents and know all about the issue. It is a very difficult period. As a nation, we have been experiencing grief since March 2020. We have lost loved ones. Friends have been unable to meet one another. Loved ones have been unable to meet. We have been unable to mourn properly, something I have experienced. We have been unable to visit the people we love and I have experienced that. Our very way of life has changed.

According to research published by the Irish Youth Foundation on Tuesday, 73% of young workers believe that the pandemic will cause serious damage to the long-term mental health of young people in their communities. The economic impact of the pandemic on those who are already in precarious economic situations has been recognised as something that will impact significantly on mental health. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated that the economic downturn will have significant consequences for people's mental health outcomes in the short term and the longer term.

The HSE clinical lead in psychiatry is warning that a tsunami is coming. Youth workers are concerned and Mental Health Reform has also outlined its concerns about the impact future strains of the virus could have on our services. The Minister of State has been warned. We have had at least four debates on mental health since January in this House. We cannot keep going around and around here. We must match our words with action. It is not good enough that our spending on mental health is only 5.1% of the entire health budget. I hope the Minister of State will fight in that regard. She has the capacity to fight to improve that allocation. Our neighbours in France, Germany, Sweden and the UK allocate between 10% and 13% of health spending to mental health. Increasing spending will allow for more staff on mental health teams and help to reduce unacceptable waiting lists. We also need to fund new services that go beyond talk therapies and truly focus on a person-led approach which works far better.

We know what needs to be done to tackle the pressures that exist within the system. We know that the will is there from the health professionals. Many of us on this side of House are agreed on what needs to be done. It is time for the Minister of State and the Government to step up to the mark.

I would appreciate it if the Minister of State, in her reply, will give an update on Jigsaw services in my own county.


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