By Pat Lawlor

The mental health emergency across Northern Ireland was brought starkly into focus this week, with protests being held by two different campaign groups within days of each other.

On Sunday, Compass Counselling – a charity-based, cross-community mental health organisation from the Shankill area – held a protest outside Belfast City Hall. This organisation – which depends on local government grants, fundraising and donations – is under imminent threat of closure due to a lack of funding. The protest called on Health Minister Robin Swann to immediately intervene with appropriate funding to secure this very successful service, which delivered more than 800 counselling sessions in 2019 and has held more than 50 so far this year. This protest coincided with a motion being passed by Belfast City Council to support this service, with a proposal to provide £20,000 to stabilise the service in the short-term.

Two days later, on Tuesday, families bereaved through suicide led the 123GP Campaign in another demonstration outside the Public Health Agency in Belfast. Their demand, again on the Health Minister, was for investment in mental health services in every GP practice, with a maximum 28-day referral process to specialist services in place.

These protests expose a mental health epidemic with a devastating tsunami of suicides, particularly amongst the youth. Official reports from the Department of Health illustrate the extent of this crisis. Northern Ireland has higher levels of mental illness than any other region of the UK, with estimates of 1 in 5 adults (20%) and around 45,000 children and young people reporting a mental health problem at any one time. Over 300 suicides a year (5 people per week) have been registered since 2015. Over 5,000 lives have been lost through suicide since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, more than were lost through the Troubles.

The crisis is multifactorial. However, evidence emphasises the intergenerational impact of 30 years of sectarian conflict on relationships and communities. This has been compounded with decades of poverty and deprivation. An Assembly health report in 2019 illustrated “strong evidence” of a link between area-level deprivation and suicidal behaviour. It indicated suicide was 70% higher “in deprived areas than non-deprived areas.”

The Assembly Executive and the main political parties bear responsibility for this mental health emergency, as they have implemented over a decade of Tory austerity. Their policy of chronic underfunding across health has led to a 26% underspend in mental health services.

These campaigns deserve our full support. We need to link together all campaigns in defence of mental health provision, with the support of the general public and the industrial power of the trade union movement, to demand NHS services which meet need and to tackle the poverty and deprivation which lie at the root of this crisis.