Thursday, 21 September 2023
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
74. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the efforts that are being made to expand places in third-level courses for mental healthcare; what assistance is being given by his Department to assist third-level institutions in offering these increased places; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40606/23]
Children's mental health services and mental health services in general in this State are beyond crisis at this point. Successive Governments have failed to implement proper workforce planning and we now face staffing shortages. We need more qualified mental health staff coming through our universities. What efforts are being made to expand places in third level courses for mental healthcare? What is the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science doing to assist third level institutions in offering increased places?
I thank the Deputy for highlighting this important matter. My Department is here to help any part of the public service that needs more people trained in specific areas. That includes veterinarians, as we saw this year, doctors and nurses. We are now doing work on disability services. We stand ready to help any part of the public health service or any Department that wants to put a workforce plan in place. We are here and ready to help. We could more planning in this area.
I will outline what we have done so far. The Department is committed to supporting the health and welfare of the population by ensuring we train enough people to work in the health service. As the Deputy knows, training is only one part but it is a good start. We want to ensure we support a range of clinical teams. Disciplines such as medicine, nursing and a range of allied healthcare professions are, of course, relevant to mental health, as well as our other health and social care disciplines.
In July I announced 460 annual new entrant places in healthcare programmes. We are growing the number of students being able to study healthcare by 460 from this September. Sixty of these places are in medicine. Some of those will go on to specialise in mental health. It is not possible for me to predict at the moment, but increasing the number of undergraduate medicine places helps. A total of 255 places are in nursing of which 49 are specifically in mental health nursing. That was what was sought through the work that was undertaken. In addition, Ulster University and Queen's University Belfast have 200 places in nursing, which also will be of benefit. A further 50 paces are available in therapy disciplines in Ulster University. These places build further on the expansion in the system in recent years, including 135 annual new entrant places in nursing and 60 in medicine in 2022.
Through an expression-of-interest process we asked our third level institutions what more they could do in healthcare.
They have come back with a highly ambitious plan as to how they believe we can grow the numbers of nurses, doctors, therapists and others working in the health service over the next number of years. I am committed to working with the HSE, the Department of Health and the Minister for Health in delivering that programme. I would also welcome any insights the Deputy or others he may talk to have on this issue.
I spent the recess meeting organisations, staff and mental health services right across the State, including in Deputies Griffin and Healy-Rae's area in Kerry, meeting families affected by child and adolescent mental health services. One of the biggest things that came up was about retention of staff working in the mental health service. Social and economic conditions are getting worse and staff retention is a real problem. The Minister mentioned a target of 460 new places in the coming year. If Sinn Féin was in government, we would target an increase of 1,300 healthcare work-related undergraduate places in the next year and there would need to be an increase of at least 50% in this over the coming five years.
The Minister mentioned cross-departmental engagement with the Minister for Health. What conversations were had with the Minister for Health? What is needed to meet the needs of the healthcare services at the moment? As I said, I do not think 460 places will cut it. The 460 additional places are welcome but we need many more.
I do not doubt the Deputy's sincerity about this. I need to say that 460 is not a number that I plucked out of the air. It is what the colleges in Ireland have told us they can do. If the Deputy ever finds himself in my position, all of this is contingent on asking the universities what they can do if we give them more money. The hospitals and others are asking what they can do about clinical places. The answer that they came up with collectively was 460. The benefit of this is that it is 460 extra every year. The cumulative impact of this over a number of years is significant. It is not just 460, though. It is 460 plus the 200 in the North and a further 50 studying therapy in the North. It is well above 700. It is about 720. That is where we are. I am happy to try to do more. That is the honest answer about what the system told us. The issue of retention is key. It is not for me to stray outside my remit but we can train more people, but obviously we then need to try to retain them in the health service. That is a different body of work. I have had many conversations with the Minister for Health and Department of Health. A working group has been set up with my Department and the Department of Health on workforce planning. We regularly meet at an official level to map that out.
I want to address one particular course that has been cancelled this year. The Minister might have notes on it. It is in Question No. 107. I will give the Minister a heads-up on that in case he has it there. The specialist master's degree on children's mental health in Trinity College Dublin has been cancelled this year. This master's degree in children's mental health provided at Trinity is open to people from a range of different backgrounds, including professions that work with children, adolescents and families with mental health issues. It also includes medicine, education, speech and language therapy, psychology and nursing. It is a gateway course into child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. We have heard reports from CAMHS all summer about how children accessing care in CAMHS are really suffering. This is a time when we need to increase specialist courses. This course has now been cancelled. If this course was around, it would really help to build the vital multidisciplinary teams. What is the Minister doing to reinstate this course? What conversations has he had with the Minister for Health on this?
I thank the Deputy for raising this. I did not think we were going to reach that question in oral questions. I do not have my physical answer to hand but I commit to coming back to the Deputy in writing on this today. At a high level, however, what programmes are provided by universities is an autonomous decision for them. No one wants me deciding what a university should or should not provide. It is an autonomous decision for universities. That is not to say I do not care about this issue. The Deputy is quite right that children's mental health services is an area in need of urgent attention. If there is anything my Department can do to help Trinity College Dublin on that, we will not be found wanting. On foot of the Deputy's question, I will make direct contact with Trinity myself to determine if this was a decision it made and was happy to make or if it was a decision it could overcome if there was a bit of assistance. I will revert to the Deputy later today.