Members of the Families Voices Forum had the opportunity to meet with the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride again at the end of September. The content of information and concerns shared with him was not the usual information.  Seeing things through the lens of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the conversation, as it has changed our lives in our communities.

Members of the Families Voices Forum meeting Dr McBride in September

The impact of Covid restrictions on mental health was being raised constantly through the Forum since March. However, at regional strategic meetings there was ongoing feedback that demand upon services – mental health beds, crisis lines and psychology referrals had slowed. There was clear monitoring of what the impact was upon secondary care services, but little reflecting the situation with the Community and Voluntary sector. Families were reporting increasing strain in their own families and in their own communities.

Initially there was a lot of funding from the Department of Communities to support the practical needs of food and information sharing. However, as time went on, people in isolation alone, young people, unpaid carers and volunteers, amongst many others, experienced increasing emerging mental health needs.

Our members could share their experiences of the impact of this with Dr McBride and through this meeting and ongoing Protect Life meetings. Through a shared concern across members of the APG on Suicide Prevention at Stormont, communities were able to highlight the gaps in provision that required further action. Of major concern was reports from support groups in the C&V sector that they were seeing large increases in referrals for help from members of the public. The mental health impact of Covid was real. Forum members commented:

“Community groups, often unfunded and without paid staff, continue to be the backbone of support to communities struggling with mental health. They share concerns that, whilst services are reconfiguring, they are picking up the referrals in the interim, which have been escalating since May and continue to increase further.

"Families want to continue to receive support in their local communities and would like to know:

  • When are the public consultations about funding happening?
  • During the redesign of secondary mental health services to realign funding against needs, why are representatives from the C&V sectors in each Trust area not involved as key partners, particularly in funded referral pathway developments?

The CMO gave strong reassurance that funding was being prioritised and that nearly all the money required to meet the costs required to implement Protect Life 2 Strategy for this year was now in place. Further plans were ongoing to secure the annual costs of rollout over the next few years of the strategy. It was made clear that despite changes to how suicide statistics were now being collated, reducing numbers of suicides reported significantly, that no changes would be made to the urgency of resources required to further address the issue of suicide in Northern Ireland.

He went on to say that the PHA intend to begin community engagement from December through an 8-week and follow up 12-week consultation about finances in the community sector. Meetings had also begun cross-departmentally within the Executive to look at how support could be gained from across different sectors to support Protect Life 2 and reiterated the importance of ongoing engagement with local politicians and councils.

Last week, the Forum were pleased that the Chairperson the APG on Suicide, Orlaithi Flynn MLA, was able to report on 3rd November that the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, confirmed a bid had been made for increased funding to support Covid impacts on physical and mental health:

  • £222k for adult acute mental health bed management
  • £1m for additional nurses and
  • £0.98m to reduce psychological therapy waiting lists

Then, through the Protect Life Groups, a further £100k was released by the Department of Health to support implementation of the strategy within the community sectors.

Forum members are keen to see all sectors more fully supported in their efforts to provide the right support, at the right time and in the right place for all individuals and family who need it. The consultations ahead, bids submitted, and cross-departmental budgeting will hopefully work together to form a strong plan of support for our country’s mental health needs in the coming months. We’ll be closely watching what happens, for the sake of our families and our futures – together.