Professor Siobhan O’Neill has recently been appointed NI’s permanent Mental Health Champion after performing the role for more than a year in an interim capacity. She talks to Audrey Watson about being a single mum, her own experience of mental illness and what her job actually involves
Q How did the role of NI Mental Health Champion come about? How did you get involved?
A I’ve been working at Ulster University for 22 years and a lot of that work as Professor of Mental Health Sciences has been carrying out research around the mental health of the population of Northern Ireland, particularly during the last 10 years.
I was also studying suicide and suicide prevention and trying to make sure that the research we carried out influenced policy and practice, and what we were learning was identifying what was needed and shaping how services were delivered.
There was a big study in 2005 — the first mental health study carried out in NI — and through that we discovered that our rates of mental illness and in particular post-traumatic stress, were the highest of all the countries in the study.
As a result of that study, we started working with various organisations to get the message across that we needed more services than we had first thought.
I became involved in trying to improve and increase services through writing opinion pieces and speaking at events and to the media when mental health issues were being discussed, and it really fired me up. I really enjoyed doing it.
The year before, I had been working with the Department for Education on their framework for schools and doing some research with them. Prior to that, I had been approached by the Department for Justice to advise them on things that they were doing around trauma, the justice system and prisons.
So, I was kind of slowly but surely asked to advise different departments about issues such as mental health and, for example, the infrastructure around suicide prevention in public places.
In June 2020, I got a phone call out of the blue from the Department of Health asking would I be interested in becoming Mental Health Champion on an interim basis, because it can take up to six months for a public appointment to be made and they wanted to start developing a 10-year strategy and funding plan straight away.
This year, following an external recruitment process, I was appointed to the position on a permanent basis, for three years initially, and then after that, if I want to continue and they want me to continue, it can be extended to six.
Q What does the job actually involve? How do you hope to make a difference to people who have mental health difficulties?
A First of all, it’s all about services — particularly mental health services. We have a 10-year plan to reform mental health services that we are currently rolling out.
The strategy is there. That’s what the previous year has been about — consulting with people, finding out what people and also professional groups want and need, and what has worked well in other countries, and then planning how to change our services so that they will become really great.
My role is to sit on all of the key groups that are bringing forward the 35 actions in the strategy. I’m at the table making sure that the actions are all carried out properly.
There’s also a public-facing side to the role.
There are key messages that we want to send out to people about how they can look after themselves and what they can expect from services and what we need to be doing as a society to protect ourselves going forward.
Q Are you optimistic that the plan and the messages will bear fruit?
A It’s already bearing fruit. Prior to this, there were five health trusts all delivering services differently. Now we’re bringing those trusts together and we’re having a regional board so that everything is in the one place.
There are already specific services like crisis services and perinatal mental health services being developed and delivered.
There are a lot of the actions in the strategy that we’re seeing already. They may not all be happening fast enough, but money has been put into the that strategy and none of those actions are being left sitting on a shelf.
Q Where were you born and bred? What was your childhood like?
A I was born and bred in Craigbane outside Claudy, near Dungiven. I’m the eldest of four girls. My mum still works running a newsagents in Claudy, and my dad who passed away in 2019, was a sheep and cattle farmer.
My childhood was really happy. I was reared in the country with lots of adults around me and my sisters, it was a really nice way to grow up.
When I think of the pressure that young people are under now, I feel really, really lucky that I was just allowed to be myself and flourish. And I loved school. I went to Claudy Primary School and then Thornhill College in Derry. I was a bit of a geek, to be honest, and also loved art and music and being creative and Irish dancing and stuff like that.
After Thornhill, I studied psychology at Queen’s in Belfast and then did a Masters degree in Health Psychology at NUI Galway, before going on to do a part-time PhD around how people make decisions about having genetic tests for cancers.
Q How would you describe yourself as a child?
A I was probably quite precocious and strong willed. I was into animal rights from an early age and was concerned about social issues, even climate change.
I initially thought about a career in art and at one time considered going to art college, so it was a toss-up between art and psychology.
I would have loved to pursue a career in art, but ended up going for psychology because it fascinated me.
I did some work experience in a solicitor’s office because I was looking at law as well, but I quickly realised that that definitely wasn’t for me.
Q Have you ever had a problem with your own mental health?
A Yes. I went through a divorce in 2008 and it was really, really sore on me. I suffered from depression for some time after that.
I took medication and got counselling and that really helped.
I was on medication for a couple of years, and it worked.
I actually had a good experience of mental health services. My doctor looked after me and I got what I needed at that time, and then after a couple of years I went off antidepressants.
So, I know a bit about what it’s like to have a mental health problem.
Thankfully, I’ve never gone back there. But it could happen again, and it could happen to any one of us.
Q You conceived your daughter Annabel (4) through IVF as a single parent. When you decided to go down that route, how did people react?
A I was expecting people to be a bit critical, but they were very supportive, it was great. It’s difficult as a single mother, but I haven’t looked back.
I get her out to school every morning and think, ‘There she is’ and I’m totally happy.
It is hard being a single parent. I’m very lucky that I’ve got really good childcare, but it’s still a really fine balance.
There’s lots of things I have to say no to, and I don’t go out much — I don’t have much of a social life at all, but I’m really happy. It’s brilliant.
Q Being a single mum and being so busy, how do you look after your own mental health?
A Exercise. It’s a game changer for me. It just keeps me well. I have a great day if I get some exercise.
If I’ve time in the morning, I would run through the forest and do my 5K three or four times a week — I’ve bought myself new running shoes for Christmas.
When I’m not running, I do yoga and weights at home.
And I also meditate — 10 minutes a day. It helps you to live in the moment when you feel a bit stressed.
Q Are you worried about the impact the never ending Covid pandemic could have on Stormont’s mental health strategy — especially financially?
A Very much so. And it really worries me that the projections are that there’ll be an increase of about a third in the need for mental health services for the three years after the pandemic.
Children and young people have been badly affected and some would say harmed by what has happened in relation to their schools moving to remote learning and them being required to stay at home and not have contact with their peers.
They need their social connections, they need their social life, they need that oversight that school provides. And they need to be out there and connecting. It’s a critical period of development that you can’t get back later in life.
The two or three years that adults have had to endure, yes, it’s hard, it’s stressful, but we’ll be able to cope. Young people’s brains are developing at that stage, and they need that contact and interaction to regulate their stress response.
My concern is that any future closure of schools and children’s services will cause irreparable damage — particularly to young people with disabilities or those who live in disadvantaged areas and poverty.
The rest of us have come back up again and we’re doing okay, we’re coping. But those young people really aren’t, and they don’t have any power, they don’t cast a vote. Money will never replace what they’ve lost.
Q But with Covid on the rise again, what’s the alternative?
A It’s about everyone managing their behaviour and cooperating with what’s required to keep this virus down so that we don’t have to take really drastic measures like shutting down services.
That’s why I’m in favour of the mitigations that are in place at the moment and in favour of the Covid status or what’s been called the vaccine passport, so that we can be in some way confident that the rates are as low as they can be, we reduce the spread of the virus and allow schools and services to stay open.
I’m also thinking of older people and those who are clinically vulnerable, who have been ‘locked down’ now for nearly two years. That’s really damaging to their mental health. They need to have their lives back.
Yes, these measures are inconvenient, but we need to be doing all that we can to reduce the spread and make sure that older people and people who are vulnerable can still socialise and mix safely.
Those are the groups that will be badly harmed. The rest of us will merely be inconvenienced.