No home in Derry unaffected by poor mental health - Delargy MLA

Poor mental health has ‘skyrocketed’ in Derry over recent times, the MLA voted in as chair of Stormont’s All-Party Group on Mental Health has warned.

Sinn Féin MLA Pádraig Delargy was speaking to the ‘Journal’ as he set out the priorities he wants to see the cross-party group drive forward such as tackling long waits to access mental health services.

In an interview with the ‘Journal’ today Mr. Delargy, a teacher by profession, also pledges to work to ensure mental health becomes embedded in school curriculums. He is calling for properly resourced, localised measures to deal effectively with high rates of suicide and addiction in Derry and other badly affected areas, measures informed by needs identified by groups working on the ground.

Figures recently secured by Mr. Delargy show hundreds of local children are waiting over a year for a psychological assessment in the Western Trust, with the longest wait time over three years. Mr. Delargy said access to mental health services was an issue repeatedly raised with him. It is vital, he said, efforts are directed to ‘ensuring that when people need care and attention straight away that they get it’.

iInn Féin Foyle MLA Pádraig Delargy.

“The rates of poor mental health are really skyrocketing in Derry, after COVID particularly,” he said. “To me it is not good enough that somebody comes in crisis and is waiting two months, three months, four months, a year or more. That is not dealing with the crisis, it is prolonging it, prolonging the difficulty that person is in, and it is leaving them in a situation that by the time it comes to be addressed they are in a much worse place. I have been hearing as well that people are being timed out - put forward to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) at 16 but by time the appointment is due they might be 18 and they might be told ‘you are not a child any more’ and it puts you back to square one.”

Specialised regional attention to the crises facing people in Derry and other areas is listed as a top priority for the Sinn Féin Foyle MLA.

In an interview with the ‘Journal’, Mr. Delargy speaks of the suicide and mental health crises which have affected so many families here, and the need for politicians to listen and learn from charities and groups working on the ground and support them.

In the absence of an Executive which could release the increased funds for the new and much more targeted Mental Health Strategy, the All-Party Group (APG) work is all the more vital, he contends.

“It allows us to keep working to try and hone in on an issue, because when you have a debate on health or even when the health committee is up and running, it is such a massive brief that you want to make sure that that group is working properly.

“My big thing is to make sure you are not just talking about the problems. There is so much involved and we have to look at what are the three, four, five key areas we are going to work on and how do we measure that success, and how do we go from there.

“In the past people were working in silos, particularly with mental health. Even in Stormont you see it because each department has a separate Minister and even departmentally people can be working as individuals rather than as a collective, and the lack of an Executive again heightens that but this now gives the opportunity for more cross-departmental work.”

Mental health in schools

At the moment teaching about mental health and wellbeing in schools is not technically in the curriculum and for too long, Mr. Delargy said, it has been left to those individual schools who have developed programmes to find resources and develop strategies. A teacher by profession, Mr. Delargy has seen first hand the positive impact such programmes can have.

“In Derry I had brilliant experience, in particular, at Holy Child P.S. and they did so much on wellbeing, on mental health for the children.

“I am going to try and merge health and education, try and get that cross-departmental work, and saying to the Education APG and at some stage the Committee that we want to meet on this.

“From a teaching point a view, it’s not fair some schools are choosing to be brilliant and put their resources into addressing this and other schools are not committing that, so I would like to see a blanket approach across all schools: this is curriculum, this is measured, and that you are seeing outcomes on that.

“There needs to be a statutory input from the department saying, that is what we want you to do, here’s the curriculum and how to teach it. A lot of schools don’t feel comfortable teaching it, wondering if they are going to do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing.

“And ultimately you would be saying to the teaching colleges: ‘This is what you need to be teaching your teachers, this is what you need to be showing them to do before they come into the workplace so that that practice is carried through and carried on’.

“A lot of schools in Derry are proactive, like Oakgrove, Holy Child, they are going out and finding these courses and a lot of that comes from the pastoral leaders within those schools but the schools need to be supported in doing that and they need guidance centrally from the department.”

‘Specified solutions’

Mr. Delargy said that in the past many All-Party Groups generally at Stormont ‘have been quite Belfast-centric’.

“For me it’s about saying, ‘Look what are the needs in Derry?’ You can’t look at the north as one homogenous region and say everything is the same because we know in Derry and in Belfast there are particularly high suicide rates. We know there are higher rates of addiction. We need to be looking at a specified solution rather than a blanket one, so I’m really keen to bring the All-Party Group and workings of that group into Derry and other regions of the north and really change what has been done in the past.”

Last Autumn the APG invited all the mental health groups in Derry to the City Hotel, and a lot of groups, he said, have already been in touch looking to set up meetings.

“We are saying to the sector, ‘You tell us what needs to be done and our job is to do it’. We need to hear what the desperate needs are coming forward and react to them as best we can.”

‘Extraordinary work’ in derry

A lot of work centred around men’s mental health is being driven forward in Derry by local groups but more is badly needed, Mr. Delargy said.

This too must be a top priority for the APG given the high incidence of suicide, addiction and self-harm among men, he added.

Mr. Delargy praised the extraordinary work of Foyle Search & Rescue, HURT, Zest, ARC, the Bogside & Brandywell Health Forum and others and the remarkable commitment and determination of individuals and the north west generally to support, fundraise and spread awareness.

In Derry, he said, ‘so many people have been impacted by mental health in their own families, friends, they themselves, it just hits home with everybody. I don’t think you could go to any house in Derry where there hasn’t been somebody impacted by poor mental health. So, collectively in the city, it has impacted everywhere, and I think there is a collective responsibility felt in the city now that we are going to do something together about this’.

“There are groups across the north, but particularly across the north west and particularly in Derry set up on the back of crisis and of dire need. We are really, really lucky to have them.

“We are keen to work with all those groups and we have already met a number of them but we are really keen to build on that and to build those groups as well because I think the work they are doing is absolutely fantastic.

“You see people year after year stepping forward volunteering their time, their efforts. Even the amount of money raised for FSR says a lot about people in Derry and how that affects them that people are constantly fundraising and realising how important FSR and other charities are, but you need the statutory funding as well. You need the government weighing in behind that.

“Coming from Derry you couldn’t fail to be inspired by the likes of Danny Quigley, Gary Rutherford. The Bogside & Brandywell Health Forum have been really proactive in getting out to every part of town.

“At a community level and individual level people are making a real difference and we now need to see an Executive formed, so people are supported in that from a statutory and government level.”

Before he began his career as a politician, Pádraig and his family set up the Patricia Hughes bursary scheme named for his aunt who was a much loved teacher at St. Columb’s College. Patricia died suddenly back in 2016.

Pádraig said he felt ‘privileged and honoured’ to lead as chair of the APG ‘and obviously it is a personal passion of mine because of having lost Patricia’.

Collective Voice

Mr. Delargy said that the ‘DUP block’ on returning to a functioning Executive was impacting on the ability to hit the ground running with the new Mental Health Strategy. The Strategy was unveiled recently by Health Minister Robin Swann and Mental Health Champion Siobhán O’Neill, with Finance Minister Conor Murphy pledging £80m a year towards it.

The major increase in funding, the Derry politician said, ‘was a great sign of things to come, a benchmark, saying, we do see it as a priority; Sinn Féin see this is a priority, but we want to see that money now rolled out and the strategy implemented. There is no point in it sitting on a shelf. You can plan and plan all day but without the resources and the money behind it you are struggling with what you can do, so what we want to make sure now more broadly is that we get the Executive up and running so this group isn’t a talking shop but is instead implementing what needs to happen’.

Mr. Delargy also appealed to all parties to play their part. “What I’m saying to parties who are not as well represented on that group at the minute, the DUP in particular, is that we need you on this group, we need you to be working with us and we need your support if we are going to deliver this properly.

“It affects people in unionist areas as much as in nationalist areas so we need that collective voice.”

*Anyone in distress in NI can contact Lifeline 24/7 helpline for free on 0808 808 8000 in; The Samaritans 24/7 on 02871 265511 or Freephone 116 123 in confidence. Anyone in distress in RoI can contact Pieta House free on 1800 247 247; TEXT Crisis Textline Ireland on 50808 - a free 24/7 text service; Ring Samaritans 24/7 on freephone number 116-123.