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Progress proving painfully slow

Blog Posts March 31st2017

Because of reduced stigma and increased public awareness, more young people are talking about their mental health.

Too often, young people who do reach out don’t get the immediate care they need before they get worse.

In the last five years, mental health has been prioritised by young people as the top issue preventing them from flourishing and from being the happy children and young adults we want them to be.

Parents watch their children suffer without support. Our communities have lost too many young people to suicide.

Despite asking for our help, progress is painfully slow. Mental health is incredibly complex and the list of issues affecting young people in Ireland is long.

Early Intervention

Our ability to address the flaws in our mental health system will determine our success in creating a supportive environment that protects young people from preventable harm.

About 75% of all serious mental health difficulties first emerge between the ages of 15 and 25, and four in every 10 young people in Ireland have reported, at some point, that their life is not worth living.

Ireland has the fourth-highest suicide rate in the EU among 15 to 24-year-olds.

To prevent difficulties emerging or worsening, we have to act early and quickly.

We have to do more to support infant mental health and we have to equip children with mental health literacy, coping strategies, optimism, self-esteem, and resilience as early in their lives as possible.

Children and young people equipped with these skills navigate life’s major transitions, like moving to secondary school or college, in ways that are less likely to negatively impact their mental health.

Risk Factors

The list of things that hurt the mental health of young people is considerable and growing.

Perennial challenges like alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and bullying have been joined by sexual violence, body image pressures, gambling, and growing economic inequality.

Systemic economic inequality, which has been building over the last decade, is creating an environment that doesn’t support young people when they need it most.

The recession has affected their economic power and they have reduced access to secure employment, income support, and housing. Young people can face years of temporary, low-paid employment after college, with poor conditions and pay.

All of this matters, not just because of the injustice, but because one of the most important protective factors for mental health is economic security.

Then, there are groups of young people prevented from flourishing by societal discrimination.

LGBT young people in Ireland are three times more likely to attempt suicide, while the suicide rate within the Traveller community is six times higher than in the general population. Today, in Ireland, 10% of the young adults admitted to psychiatric units are homeless.

Direct provision has been described by clinicians as ‘toxic’ to the mental health of those forced to live there.

Too many of our young people are needlessly suffering, when we should be reversing inequality and providing people with the support they need to recover.

Progress

As a result of the growing public demand to improve our response to the mental health needs of young people, the system is changing, albeit slowly and starting from a low base.

The Department of Education is introducing a new wellbeing curriculum this autumn. This will, hopefully, be comprehensively and enthusiastically implemented by schools, and equip our children and young people with the skills needed to be happy and healthy.

The mental health division in the HSE has a number of service-improvement projects in train, including the appointment of new clinical leads for self-harm and dual diagnosis, and significant efforts to reform the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

It is also currently implementing Connecting for Life, a new strategy to reduce suicide and self-harm.

One of the biggest challenges facing the mental health system is a gaping hole in the national availability of free, accessible early intervention and primary care psychotherapeutic services for young people.

Demand for these types of services massively outstrips supply and is placing pressure on our acute system, including CAMHS.

Three new brief intervention Jigsaw centres for youth mental health will open in Dublin, Cork, and Limerick this year, bringing the total to 13.

A plan to recruit 100 assistant psychologists to staff primary-care psychology services around the country is also currently awaiting approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

All of these are welcome developments, but for those relying on these improvements to make a difference to their lives, you can understand their impatience and frustration at the pace of change.

Ultimately, Government needs to invest significantly more money in the system if it is to provide 24/7 access to appropriate care and therapy.

Progress is being made, but if we’re serious about making a difference, we need to work harder.

Ian Power is executive director of youth information website, SpunOut.ie, and a member of the National Taskforce on Youth Mental Health.

This analysis piece originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 31/03/2017