Northern Ireland’s health trusts say they are implementing a range of measures in a bid to ensure children and adults with mental health issues don’t have to wait longer than the nine-week target time to access services.
Figures revealed in the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) ‘Performance Report – 2018/19 End of Year Assessment’ show that across Northern Ireland the number of young people waiting longer than nine weeks to access Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) increased from 66 at the end of March 2018 to 487 at the end of March 2019.
It said 97% of patients waiting longer than nine weeks at the end of March 2019 were routine referrals for children and young people who are experiencing mild/moderate mental health difficulties (294) and those with complex needs (179).
The HSCB figures also reveal that the number of people waiting longer than nine weeks to access adult mental health services rose from 648 to 1,529 during the same period, but show the waiting time position improved in the final quarter of 2018/19.
The breakdown of figures shows that the Northern Trust had no young people waiting more than nine weeks for services in March 2018, but 212 this year – something it puts down to “the challenges it is facing in implementing an integrated service model”.
To address the problem, the trust said it is “recruiting permanent staff, employing agency workers and working with the community/voluntary sector to increase capacity and expects waiting times to improve during 2019/20 as a result.”
The Belfast Trust, where 177 patients were waiting longer than nine weeks for CAMHS services as of March 31 this year – up from 56 in 2018 – said its increased waiting times were down to “unplanned staff absences” and a subsequent “loss of capacity”.
Only one trust – Southern – achieved the nine-week target for CAMHS patients.
In terms of adult services, none of the trusts achieved the waiting time targets, but the Northern Trust had only six patients waiting longer than nine weeks at year-end.
The Southern (+532 patients year-on-year) and Western (+386 patients) trusts reported the most significant increases in the number of people waiting more than the nine-week target time.
Both put the problems down to staffing issues and increasing demand, and said they are working on measures to reduce waiting times.
The worrying waiting time figures were highlighted by Ulster Unionist mental health spokesperson Robbie Butler MLA.
He described the current situation, while Northern Ireland is still without a devolved government, as “a scandal” and said “the two main political parties to get their act together and agree the immediate restoration of the Assembly.
David Babington, chief executive of local charity Action Mental Health, has called for “a whole system review across all age groups on mental health services” across Northern Ireland as part of a mental health strategy.
• The Equality Commission has welcomed the publication of an Ulster University report which highlights that Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK that does not have an overarching mental health strategy.
The ‘Review of Mental Health Policies in Northern Ireland: Making Parity a Reality’ document also shows that the delivery of mental health treatments and care is fragmented and not properly resourced.
The commission has called on the Government to develop and implement a new strategy to address mental health issues here.
Meanwhile, the Belfast Trust has confirmed that its new Acute Mental Health Inpatient Centre at Belfast City Hospital will open to patients on Monday.
The new centre will provide 80 acute mental health en-suite bedrooms including six psychiatric intensive care beds.
Mel Carney, Interim Co-Director, Mental Health Services at Belfast Trust said: “We have had mental health provided across three sites in Belfast and we are now re-providing all of our acute mental health beds in one site. This modern facility has wards designed around gardens and bright spaces. The building has been developed through learning from best practice across the UK and consulting service users.
“We believe this will make a significant contribution to the mental health of the population of Belfast and we believe the environment we are providing here will support the program of care we deliver. Our service users and their families can be proud of this building, and that is something they deserve.”