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Northern Ireland GP reveals children as young as nine being referred to mental health services

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Crisis: Dr Michael McKenna

Crisis: Dr Michael McKenna

Crisis: Dr Michael McKenna

A Northern Ireland GP has revealed he is referring children as young as nine to mental health services.

Dr Michael McKenna said he regularly sees children experiencing mental health difficulties, including anxiety and depression, but the health service is struggling to cope with demand.

The west Belfast-based GP also said that self-harming by teenagers has also become a huge issue.

"It has got to the stage where I am making more referrals to mental health services than I am to other services, be that cardiology, old age medicine or ENT," he said. It has emerged that 888 children will be waiting more than nine weeks to access Child and Adult Mental Health Services (CAMHS) by the end of March.

Dr McKenna said: "I would say that mental health issues take up about 20% of my day-to-day work now.

"The biggest thing is the number of young people that I am referring into CAMHS, the number of referrals I'm making is staggering.

"There are quite a number of teenagers who are self-harming and are suicidal and the problem is the delay in getting them into services.

"The issue as a GP is that I have no idea how long it will take for a patient to get into the appropriate therapy. It's hugely frustrating because you're trying to deal with people in distress and you're struggling to get anything done for them," he said.

"That means we then have to resort to drugs to try and tide them over. If we want to make a real change in services, we need to seriously increase funding of services."

Kerry McWilliams, the founder of Lightwork NI, a charity that helps people build emotional resilience, said: "There is absolutely a mental health crisis.

"The message I hear from children is that they struggle with their emotions.

"They spend a great deal of time in environments where they have to keep their emotions in check, whether that's school or breakfast club, or nursery, and then when they get home the parents are too tired or busy to spend proper time with them.

"The children aren't neglected, they are fed and watered, but the adults aren't spending proper time with them. I think if we want to tackle the crisis, we need to be looking at a much more child-centred approach."

Health officials have said the waiting times for mental health services are not acceptable and Health Minister Robin Swann has said it is a key priority.

He has said he plans to set up a special group to improve suicide prevention across Northern Ireland.

Children and young people affected by any issues in this article can contact Childline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on 0800 1111 or by visiting www.childline.org.uk

Belfast Telegraph