The leaders of the two main unionist parties will share a stage this weekend – the first time since it was claimed they met to discuss the future of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the DUP.
Both Sir Jeffrey and UUP chief Doug Beattie will be on the panel at an event in Belfast’s Europa Hotel on Saturday, organised by the youth-led Pure Mental to discuss young people and mental health.
They will be joined by Alliance leader Naomi Long, Sinn Fein’s Orlaithi Flynn and SDLP MP Claire Hanna.
It comes after Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey last month denied claims he had considered returning to the UUP, while Mr Beattie said he had evidence to prove this was discussed during talks.
This weekend they will meet at an event that gives young people the opportunity to grill politicians ahead of May’s Assembly election.
Jay Buntin, one of the founders of the mental health charity, said the election will see many younger voters take to the polls for the first time.
“We’re delighted that our political parties have shown how seriously they are taking these issues,” he said.
“The fact that we have three party leaders attending will give young people the opportunity to quiz them on the real mental health issues that so many are experiencing, not just in schools, but at university and in the wider community.
“We won’t be giving them an easy ride. At Pure Mental, we are determined to make a real difference to the attitudes and support available to improve the mental health of young people across Northern Ireland.
“Our politicians can be sure we will be taking note of what they say, what commitments they make, and keeping a close eye on the progress of implementing a mental health strategy to support all young people.
“We want to make sure this is not a case of politicians paying lip service to the views of younger people. We want to hear their views, interact with them and let them know what we’re feeling and what we want to see achieved."
Representatives from student unions, the NI Youth Forum and Crisis Cafe will also be among those attending the event.
The panel will hear Pure Mental call on politicians to commit to fully funding and supporting a primary school counselling service which extends beyond just a pilot scheme, ensuring the programme is co-designed with parents and teachers.
They are also seeking to ensure mental health first aid training is available for school staff, so that in times of crisis and despair, both the pupils and staff are supported.
Pure Mental is also calling for support for the creation of a mental health in schools plan for pupils with special educational needs in conjunction with parents, teachers and school leaders. It also wants MLAs to commit to improving mental health education, awareness and services within schools with a top-down, holistic and whole-school approach.
Jay added: “Perhaps most importantly, we need to see a commitment to fully funding the 2021-2031 Mental Health Strategy through a cross-party, whole-Executive approach.”
Last month it was revealed that more than 2,000 children are waiting to access mental health services.
In 944 cases, there has been a wait of more than nine weeks for a first appointment with the CAMHS mental health service.
One in eight young people here experience anxiety and depression, 25% higher than elsewhere in the UK, and the problem has increased in the last two years of school closures and Covid restrictions.