Mark Durkan, MLA, who was recently appointed Chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly All Party Group on Mental Health, has kindly agreed to share his views with us ahead of World Mental Health Day, which takes place this Saturday, 10th October.

What is your vision for your time as Chair of the APG on Mental Health?

"At the risk of sounding clichéd, I want to see change, real tangible meaningful and positive change not just in our attitudes toward mental health but fundamentally how mental health support is accessed and delivered.

"We’re slowly but surely seeing an erosion of stigma as more and more people share their struggles with mental health - social media is great in that respect, it’s not all bad, but rather provides a platform or even serves as a reminder that you’re not alone. That greater awareness has been reflected at an Executive level, with the creation of a dedicated working group on mental well-being and resilience and appointment of a Mental Health Champion.

"There has been progress, positive steps have been taken and I hope to build on that, ensuring that mental health remains a priority."

"Unfortunately, the likelihood is that in a post-pandemic landscape we will see increased demand for mental health services. Therefore, a fit for purpose and accessible system of support is key to ensure our most vulnerable can access help as and when they need it."

What do you believe are some of the most effective ways to maximise impact of investment in mental health?

"Improving mental health and investment in it, is such a multi-faceted and cross cutting issue therefore any response must take a mirrored approach.

"At a basic level it comes down to parity of esteem - valuing mental health equally with physical health."

"That begins with education. I’ve argued the case for mandatory mental well-being and resilience teaching within our schools, at all levels of education. It is vitally important our children are equipped with the essential skills to understand and recognise their emotions, to build resilience required to deal with the hardships life inevitably brings. The earlier we can intervene to provide those skills, the more effective they will be.

"We need to embolden our children from an early age with the importance of speaking openly about mental health- that fight begins in our schools. I don’t want to put too simplistic a spin on this however and fully recognise that maximising the impact of mental health investment requires an all-encompassing and co-ordinated response. From engaging with the experts, communities and individuals who know this area better than most. Only then can we move past talking shops to meaningful action. In addition, studies time and time again have shown that areas of deprivation often have the highest levels of poor mental health- so it’s about investing in all areas of society including the economy, job creation and providing opportunity. It comes down to investing in people’s futures."

What are the key challenges inhibiting greater access to support for better mental health?

"A recurrent and indeed prevalent barrier issue is the lack of collaboration and need for an integrated care provision. In particular, dual-diagnosis for those suffering from poor mental health and addiction issues. I’ve witnessed too many lives destroyed, heard accounts from too many individuals and families failed by the system. Alcohol and drug dependency is rife within our communities and the reality is that attempts to improve the system have been too slow.

"If we scratch just beneath the surface of addiction, there usually lies a mental health struggle."

"Yet many individuals desperate to access mental health support, are told to ‘get clean’ before they can avail of treatment. Leaving highly vulnerable people caught in a vicious circle, their needs unmet. We need to be looking towards developing specialist teams and facilities that can cater to those needs.

"And I suppose at a more basic level access is inhibited by the perennial issue of finances. While there have been positive steps in recent years to increase investment in this area, the Executive has a duty of care, to put money their money where their mouth is and deliver on mental health commitments. That begins with ring-fencing capital and providing rolling funding for services here."

How do you rate the importance of cross sector partnership with the community and voluntary sector?

"The involvement of the Community and Voluntary Sector is not only necessary but the absolute cornerstone of effective mental health support."

"These organisations operate at a grassroots level, dealing with society’s most vulnerable on a daily basis and have played an inimitable support role to date. In my own constituency of Foyle, the likes of the Community Crisis Intervention Centre and mental health charities such as HURT, can provide a level of unparalleled expertise and invaluable insight into how mental health pathways ought to be delivered.

"As the old adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child, likewise it takes a whole community to create a system that works for the ordinary man, woman and child."

What ways would you like to see such partnerships work/develop during the next year?

"Two years ago, I called upon the Department of Health to establish a Suicide Prevention Taskforce for the North West. Sadly, that proposal was rejected but I would like to see that proposal revisited - I’ve appealed to Health Minister Swann to do just that, in the hope that this pilot could be rolled out in other areas in the future. A Taskforce would bring together senior Departmental and Trust officials, mental health experts, charities and community-based groups to identify and plug gaps in support and services. 

"Despite the undoubted efforts of many, the publication of a new suicide prevention strategy, some but nowhere near enough investment and Executive commitments, there are still, in my view, clear and obvious shortcomings. This is no way a criticism of the many dedicated people and organisations working hard every day to help people, to change lives and to save lives, rather it is in support of them. This framework centres around partnership working and has the potential to compliment and cultivate such initiatives.

"Enhanced collaboration is key to effective care and support."

"Once we grasp that, once we develop mental health care pathways that puts collaboration to the forefront we can begin to comprehensively address and tackle poor mental health within our communities."