This Tuesday was World Mental Health day. The day itself saw numerous events and significant media coverage dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues and to challenging the undeniable stigma that sadly still surrounds this very complex and sensitive issue.
It is to be welcomed that discussion of the subject of Mental Health is no longer shoe-horned into one day a year and that it is prevalent in the press all year round.
While this demonstrates a growing awareness of the seriousness of the issue and the need to tackle it, it also reflects a greater prevalence of mental health problems and their growing impact on individuals, families and right across society. Far from being something to celebrate, this is something that really should have alarm bells ringing and ringing loud.
While public figures (including me) churn out now almost hackneyed messages encouraging people that ‘Its okay not to be okay’ and encouraging people to seek help rather than suffer in silence, the huge increase in people seeking such help has not been anywhere near matched by an increase in the help available to them.
This results in longer waiting lists for treatment and even greater difficulty for people in accessing much needed help, in many cases compounding their condition.
In Derry we are lucky to have so many groups and individuals working to provide support for people suffering from mental ill health.
Some of these groups operate on shoestring budgets, some on even less. They are on the coal face, they know the scale and depth of problems affecting people.
Similarly, within the statutory sector, mental health professionals are trying their very best to help ever-increasing numbers of people in an environment where budgets are being squeezed ever tighter.
Despite a greater public awareness of challenges in the area of mental health, it will never hit the headlines in the way that spiralling hip-operation waiting lists or queues at Emergency Departments will and, therefore, will not, under the current system, be afforded the resources required. That is why the system needs changed.
During the last Assembly, I uncovered that Mental Health was only allocated around 5 per cent of the Health Budget here. This compares unfavourably with just about any other jurisdiction despite the well-publicised fact that we have a greater prevalence of mental health issues here in the North than anywhere else on these islands.
Mental Health needs its own place. The SDLP has campaigned for the appointment of a ‘Mental Health Champion’ - a proposal that was shot down by the DUP and SF- someone who could fight for a greater share for Mental Health and to ensure that any money spent on mental health is having the maximum impact.
Its not just in the Department of Health that things need to be done differently though. We need to look at practice in our schools, teaching children from a young age the importance of mental health and techniques to look after their own well-being. In the workplace and in our own homes we should be more aware of how to look after ourselves and look out for the people around us.
We will continue to work with others and in the community to break down the barriers and overcome the obstacles associated with mental health issues. If everyone pushes in the same direction, I am confident that we will see the changes so badly needed. I will not give up until we get the changes so badly needed and I will continue to bang the drum for more resources and better services and I will do it every day of the year.