After 3 years of deadlock, the Northern Ireland Assembly reached an agreement on 11th January of this year, returning the executive to Stormont to begin business as usual once again. As the power-sharing executive gets back on track, issues which have been at the forefront of public discussion for the past few years will fall squarely into the MLAs laps. It is clear that the Northern Irish public has worked out what they need from the new executive, and will not let them ignore the most pressing issues. These include those which facilitated the deadlock in the first place; abortion rights, equal marriage and an Irish Language Act. There is another important issue which has come to the fore in recent years which has fallen into the political void left by Stormont until recently, and that is the issue of mental health.
On the 20th January, just over a week since the Assembly was reformed and the ministerial positions were allocated; an open letter was published in the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph. The letter was addressed to the new Minister for Health, UUP’s Robin Swann, and called for an urgent focus from the Department of Health on the alarming suicide rate in Northern Ireland. Dozens of high-profile figures from the worlds of sport and entertainment (including Gary Lightbody, Carl Frampton and KNEECAP) have signed the open letter, which calls on the government to declare a ‘public health emergency’ with regards to suicide in NI. Although Swann has said that suicide prevention is a top priority for his government, the letter states that the current ‘Protect Life 2’ strategy does not go far enough in dealing with the severity of the issue. The letter calls for current spending on mental health services to be doubled, and a cap on waiting times to see a mental health professional set to 4 weeks. The letter also highlights the fact that deaths from suicide are often concentrated in deprived areas, stating that commitments to address poverty and inequality should also be recognised as suicide prevention measures.
In 2019, NI’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride warned that there was no greater challenge to public health than suicide. Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK, with around 5 people dying every week; three times as many as those who die in road traffic collisions. More than 70% of those who have died from suicide were not known to mental health services. Speaking to BBC NI, Gary Lightbody pointed out that while the NI suicide rate is 25% higher than in England; NI mental health spending per capita is half of English spending. He pointed out the unique position of Northern Ireland; that on top of the reasons for mental health issues that the rest of the UK face, NI also has the unique issue of residual trauma from the Troubles. The alarming nature of the mental health crisis is put into perspective by the fact that more people have now died by suicide since the Good Friday Agreement was signed than died in the conflict. During the Troubles, between 1969 and 1997; an estimated 3600 people died as a direct result of the conflict. It was reported in 2018 that around 4500 people had died from suicide in the region, and with around 300 people dying by suicide each year, this figure is now thought to be over 5000.
During the 3 years of political deadlock in NI, the pressure fell to charities and other community groups to address the mental health issues in the region. Groups such as the Participation & Practice of Rights, who backed the open letter published to Robin Swann, had been campaigning for years for the health board to declare an emergency in regards to the suicide rate in NI. They, along with other charities, have welcomed the return of the executive but warn that the current approach to mental health strategy does not go far enough. The charity group Action Mental Health have professed concerns that the commitments to mental health in the new Stormont agreement remain vague. They are calling for a Mental Health champion to be put in place in Stormont; someone with relevant experience and power to focus on achieving parity for mental health in NI, in line with the rest of the UK.
With an entire generation of school children now born and growing up post-ceasefire, many young people are determined that they will not watch their peer groups torn apart by suicide in the same way that their parents’ generation saw theirs torn apart by violence. In February 2019, BBC NI reported that one in 10 Northern Irish school children are living with a diagnosable mental illness. One group working to this end is Pure Mental NI, a grassroots youth movement who held their first rally in Belfast City Centre on the 4th of January. Pure Mental NI’s aim is to lobby the government for improved mental health education and awareness in primary, pre-primary and secondary education. The group was founded in August 2019 by teenagers Jay Buntin and Matthew Taylor, who wanted to address the serious lack of awareness and education around mental health in schools. In an Instagram following their rally in Belfast, the boys said they hoped that in the future “no one goes through our experience in a school that never provided a single talk, assembly or even a discussion around mental health in our entire seven years”. As the Assembly settles into a new decade of power-sharing, it is important that they listen to activists and campaigners and respond with urgency to the mental health crisis, or another generation may fall victim to the tragedy which the ceasefire promised to avoid.
Photo by The People Speak!
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