Concerns over mental health care ‘blackspot’

* For suicide feature by Ingrid Kent.
* For suicide feature by Ingrid Kent.

A suicide prevention community group has described figures showing Mid Ulster as a ‘blackspot’ when it comes to accessing counselling for mental health problems, as ‘deeply disturbing’.

Karen McGuigan, from STEPS, based in Draperstown, was responding to figures uncovered by the campaigning organisation Participation and Practice Rights (PPR) which revealed that out of a total of 2,000 referrals accepted for counselling in 2017-18 only five were from Magherafelt and Cookstown areas.

Ms McGuigan said: “We know from our own experience as a community based counselling provider that timely access to locally based quality counselling can be life-saving for people in distress.

“Our experience is validated by research which shows that counselling offers an effective, low-cost form of treatment that can help to address mental pain and distress before these become acute, thereby ensuring that fewer people end up needing crisis care services.

“It is vital that people who are struggling with their mental health or with suicidal thoughts can access the help and support they need so urgently.

“Sadly in 2017 alone, 65 people in the Northern Trust area died as a result of suicide. This stark number underscores the absolute urgency of the Northern Trust addressing this issue.”

The Northern Health and Social Care Trust provides access to talking therapies through its primary care talking therapy and Wellbeing Hubs.

In 2017/18 it had contracts with 19 different community and voluntary organisations to provide counselling costing an estimated £209,000.

Numbers seen in the other three localities ranged from 417 in Antrim/Ballymena, 661 in Coleraine/Ballymoney to almost 1000 in Larne/Carrickfergus/Newtownabbey area.

Out of the 19 organisations contracted to deliver counselling, only two were identified as being able to cover all three localities which would include the Magherafelt and Cookstown area.

A spokesperson for the Northern Trust said the figures quoted refer to the number of referrals accepted by the Primary Care Talking Therapy and Wellbeing Hubs and do not include the Trust statutory counselling provision which seen approximately 270 people in the Mid Ulster area last year.

“It also excludes other counselling provision funded directly to primary care by the Health and Social Care Board. Over the last year, the Trust have undertaken a review of the investment for hubs and are moving to a new model which will see this funding directly invested in service provision. This will see increased provision in Mid Ulster.”

Continuing, Ms McGuigan explained that as a voluntary charity STEPS have provided counselling since December 2016 and still receive “zero funding from government.”

“To date we have seen over 200 people from 25 different towns and would not be able to offer this service without our community fundraising for us,” she said.

“Therefore we were shocked and frustrated that such a significant investment of public money has completely by-pass this community.

“We want the Northern Trust to guarantee to every single person in Mid Ulster area who needs it, that they will be able to access quality counselling in their own local area, that they won’t have to wait any longer than 28 days and that they will be provided with an adequate number of sessions. STEPS is ready and willing to work with the Trust to put in place the solutions that are needed.”

Sara Boyce, #123GP campaign organiser with PPR, said the figures were extremely concerning and must sound alarm bells.

“The Trust, Board and Department of Health must move urgently to remedy this deeply unequal level of provision, The #123GP campaign has already provided them with low cost, effective solutions: the Health and Social Care Board must adequately fund GP practice based counselling and ensure that every practice has an in-house counsellor, and secondly, the Northern Trust must ensure equal timely access to quality counselling via the Hubs for people living in the Mid Ulster area,” she said.