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Stormont told provisions for mental health are a 'scandal'

By Victoria O'Hara

A mental health champion and a 50p minimum unit pricing for alcohol must be introduced by Health Minister Simon Hamilton to help improve mental health services at "pressure point", medical experts have demanded.

Serious concerns about the level of care have been expressed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) in Northern Ireland, which says mental health needs to be given specific political focus in the next Assembly.

Launching its manifesto today, the RCP said it is "a scandal" that people with serious mental illness here have a 15- to 20-year shorter lifespan because of potentially preventable and treatable illnesses such as cardiac disease, stroke and cancer.

It is estimated that the levels of mental health problems in the province is 25% higher than in England and we also have the highest suicide rate in the UK.

Alcohol misuse, meanwhile, costs Northern Ireland around £900m and is involved in at least 50% of suicide and self-harm.

The RCP also warned that access to emergency treatment and effective long-term treatments for people suffering with mental illness is currently "at pressure point".

Recent research showed that between 2008 and 2014, actual spend on mental health services by trusts has been around 25% less than previously proposed.

The Royal College's Vice President Professor Diana Day-Cody said that there is currently a real lack of clarity in mental health planning and vision.

After consultation with its 380 members it called for the following measures:

  • the appointment of a champion for mental health, tasked with developing modern and safe mental health services that promote positive mental health;
  • to fund the physical health needs of people with mental illness and learning disability;
  • to ensure that all citizens who are vulnerable to severe mental illness, and their carers, are offered ongoing care;
  • to introduce a minimum price for alcohol of 50p per unit.

Prof Day-Cody said the appointment of a mental health champion would provide a clear voice of support for the development in services.

"One in four voters, at some point in their life, will be affected by a mental health problem," she said.

"Over 213,000 people in Northern Ireland are believed to be experiencing significant mental health problems as a result of the Troubles with a corresponding impact on their families. Access to emergency treatment and effective long-term treatments for our citizens with mental illness is currently at pressure point. These shocking facts reflect real human suffering.

"The sense of drift must be brought to a close, and there is a stark need for this commitment in the next Programme for Government."

Prof Day-Cody added: "The ready availability of cheap alcohol products is a core problem. A minimum 50p unit price would reduce their use, which would lead to fewer hospital admissions, annual savings to the local budget and saved lives, with only negligible impact on those who drink in moderation. This must be retained as a priority in the next Programme for Government."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said an evaluation of the plan of the Bamford Report of Mental Health and Learning Disability is under way and will be concluded in the spring.

"Funding issues, gaps and fragmentation in provision for service users and carers, and the potential for the appointment of mental health champions, will be considered as part of this exercise," she said. "The legality of minimum unit pricing has been the subject of a court case in Scotland. This case was referred to the European Court, whose recent ruling has not closed the door on minimum unit pricing. However, the department needs to fully consider the ruling's implications and the impact this has in Scotland - it has been referred back to the Scottish Court of Session for final consideration."

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