Counselling Services: East Belfast
Chris Lyttle (Alliance)
: I, too, support this and thank Mr Sammy Douglas for securing the debate. Mental ill health is no respecter of party political background, and I have welcomed the opportunity to work with Mr Douglas at constituency level. Indeed, I think that it is incumbent on all the MLAs for East Belfast to come together to work on the issue. Mr Douglas mentioned an area action plan and referred to some of the mapping exercises that are ongoing at the moment. It is my understanding that the East Belfast Partnership’s health strategy manager, Linda Armitage, is overseeing some of that work. It has been my pleasure to redirect some groups to the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust’s south and east Belfast mental health community of interest group; it is a bit of a long-winded title, which the group will maybe reconsider at some point in time. It is the working group that is bringing together groups from south and east Belfast to focus on the issue. Hopefully, the MLAs for the area can work together to support that work.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on what is a serious issue not just in east Belfast but across Northern Ireland. As we have heard, it is increasingly the case that many of us will have direct experience of mental ill health. I have close friends who are dealing with the issue at the moment. Indeed, I lost a close friend to suicide a while ago. He had exceptional abilities and a wide and diverse background, as has been mentioned, and I pay respect to him. It is true that, for many years, the issue of mental health has carried a stigma that has prevented people from accessing the help they need. I hope that the Assembly will play a leading role in defeating that unnecessary shame and in providing the resources to which people are fully entitled.
I think that it is important to base an examination of provision on evidence, and I would like to thank Assembly researcher Dr Lesley-Ann Black for her work in examining the extent of mental ill health in east Belfast compared with other constituencies in Northern Ireland. The facts about mental illness among people in Northern Ireland speak for themselves. As has been said, it is estimated that one in four people in the region will be affected by mental health problems at some point in their life. As Mr Copeland said, there is a difference in terms of mental health problems between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland or Wales, and consequently, incidence of such problems is 25% higher in Northern Ireland. That, of course, comes from having a legacy of violence and a divided, rather than a shared, society. I agree that there is a lot of work to be done in relation to dealing with unique interface challenges.
There are a range of indicators that allow us to examine the extent of the problem in east Belfast, and those have been mentioned throughout the debate today. Indicators such as self-harm admissions, anti-depression drug prescriptions and suicide rates show that east Belfast is in need of assistance in that area of provision. Statistics show that the east Belfast constituency has the third highest hospital admissions for self-harm, is the fourth highest dispenser of antidepressant drugs and has the joint second highest suicide rate of any constituency in Northern Ireland. I know that the increase in suicides is of serious concern to the Members present today and to the Assembly and that Minister Poots is committed to responding to that painful and difficult issue. It is clear that there can be no more painful consequence of mental ill health for any family than suicide. In mentioning that, I pay tribute to the work of the Survivors of Suicide organisation, under Bobby Cosgrove and Bobby Duffin, for the work that it does to highlight the need for assistance.
There are approximately 1,000 patients with a mental illness on the GP register in East Belfast. Unfortunately, however, there appears to be a lack of available resources to cope with the situation at present. Mr Douglas mentioned the contact that we have had with New Life Counselling in the run-up to this debate. It is a charity that supports the emotional health and well-being needs of people through the provision of counselling and therapeutic services across Northern Ireland. It is quite worrying that, between April 2011 and March 2012, despite that organisation being based in North Belfast, it received a total of 120 referrals from East Belfast from 16 separate East Belfast GPs, along with self-referrals from people in the constituency. It is also worrying that people who availed themselves of New Life Counselling’s services did so without there having been any proactive promotion of the charity’s work in the constituency. I know that there are many other organisations that can bear testimony to the increasing demand.
There is, therefore, a serious need for high-quality psychological therapy services — Mr Copeland mentioned spoken therapies in counselling services — to be well organised, resourced and co-ordinated across East Belfast. The Bamford review identified the need for improved access to services and for a more co-ordinated framework for provision to be developed. A good strategy was launched in 2010, but the budgetary reductions to its implementation have caused a lot of problems.
Early intervention, prevention and treatment across all ages have been referred to today, and it is important that we help everyone: mothers; children; young people; workers; older people; carers; and, indeed, people in the criminal justice system who have experienced unique challenges in life. Provision must be multi-agency, and the health service and the voluntary and community sector must have an opportunity to work together, as has been mentioned.
I definitely want to pay tribute to the many voluntary and community-based counselling organisations in East Belfast that are working in the most difficult of circumstances, with limited resources to improve the health and well-being of members of our community. Adequate support for that work would not only alleviate the pain and distress of mental ill health for individuals, families and communities but would prevent more major crises from occurring further down the line.
My party and I support the provision of community-based services that the Compton review has proposed, but those services have to be adequately resourced and organised. Support should be given to enable the health service and community and voluntary groups to work together, for example, to provide good communication so that people are aware of the range of services that is available — there is some doubt about the co-ordination of that communication at the moment — and to provide appropriate referral mechanisms and supervision pathways.
As Mr Copeland and Mr Douglas said, we know at first hand through the work in our offices that the economic downturn, welfare reform and other unique challenges in our constituency are having a negative impact on the health and well-being of our constituents. It is incumbent on us to lobby for those additional resources that we need. That, combined with the recent history of the Troubles and deep division, means that there is a clear need to increase the availability of high-quality counselling and psychotherapy services in East Belfast and across Northern Ireland. I sincerely hope that the Minister can respond positively to the work that is being done.