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Introducing Professor Siobhan O’Neill, NI’s first Mental Health Champion


Professor Siobhan O’Neill pictured at the Family Mediation NI 21st Anniversary event. Image credited to Moonlight.

Professor Siobhan O’Neill pictured at the Family Mediation NI 21st Anniversary event. Image credited to Moonlight.

Professor Siobhan O’Neill pictured at the Family Mediation NI 21st Anniversary event. Image credited to Moonlight.

Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates of mental ill health in the UK, and to tackle this and improve services the Department of Health launched a 10-year Mental Health Strategy that sets out the future strategic direction of mental health services in Northern Ireland.

The Minister for Health, Robin Swann, also appointed a permanent Mental Health Champion as someone who would advocate for change to improve services in NI and be the voice for those with lived experience of mental ill health to inform the change needed. Now, the Mental Health Champion is on a mission to ensure that the Mental Health Strategy is fully implemented, and that all the actions in it are brought to life.

Who is the Mental Health Champion?

Professor Siobhan O’Neill was appointed in September 2021, as Northern Ireland’s first permanent Mental Health Champion. As Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University, Siobhan is one of Northern Ireland’s leading experts in the field of mental health, known for her active and passionate involvement in suicide prevention.

Siobhan has been an advocate for mental health at both public and governmental levels. With over 21 years of research experience, her goal is to utilise research to evolve the narrative around mental ill health and inform future research and policy for the benefit of the next generation.

Siobhan continues in her role as a university professor, believing that her work as an academic and scientist enables her to build upon her academic expertise and translate her research into practice, whilst remaining independent. In this role she is a Government advisor and is involved in shaping the delivery of mental health and wellbeing initiatives across Government Departments.

What is the role of the Mental Health Champion?

As Mental Health Champion, Siobhan will advise and assist in the promotion of mental health and wellbeing though all policies and services throughout the region. Professor O’Neill will advocate for mental health and be a voice for those otherwise voiceless.

The role of the Mental Health Champion is to act as:

  • A public advocate for mental health, participating in the public debate around mental resilience, suicide, mental health, and recovery.
  • A consensus builder to integrate mental health and wellbeing across government. To encourage Government to think about mental wellbeing, resilience, mental health, and recovery and to help integrate wellbeing, resilience and mental health in all public policy making.
  • An adviser to senior stakeholders. To support research into mental health, and to provide a voice for those who otherwise would not be heard. The adviser role is supportive to drive mental health promotion and deliver substantive change to services.
  • A challenger of decisions and policies. To challenge decisions where mental wellbeing, suicide prevention, good mental health and recovery are not considered, and where such consideration would be beneficial.

Why do we need a Mental Health Champion?

This is the start of Northern Ireland’s journey of transformational change to mental health services, with the implementation of the 10-year Mental Health Strategy. The Strategy consists of 35 actions within the Department of Health to reform mental health services here, and to further early intervention and prevention.

The strategy has three themes. The first is promoting wellbeing, resilience, and good mental health across society. The second theme is "providing the right support at the right time" and will deliver service improvements to ensure that those affected by mental illness receive the best treatments.

The third theme, New Ways of Working, delivers a single Regional Mental Health Service incorporating the community and voluntary sector and structural changes to facilitate the effective and efficient delivery of mental health services.

The Champion’s role is to push the 35 actions forward, challenging inconsistences and guiding those who are designing the services, ensuring that the perspectives of people with lived experience of mental illness and their carers shape service design and delivery.

As Mental Health Champion, Siobhan has been meeting those affected by mental ill health and those delivering services to gain an understanding of what needs to change. She has been working with key advocacy groups and campaigners to ensure that services meet the needs of people on the ground.

Now that the Mental Health Champion is in place, Northern Ireland has a voice for those working, and living, with mental health issues. An individual to challenge Government, offer informed independent scrutiny, and collectively work hand in hand with the Government and other organisations to promote wellbeing. Plus, ultimately support the delivery of excellent mental health services for the population of Northern Ireland.

Learn more about the role and work of your Mental Health Champion via YouTube here.

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