depressionMental health in Northern Ireland must be given equal priority with physical health, according to a new report from an independent Commission.

The Commission, chaired by Lord Nigel Crisp and supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland, said that someone with a severe mental illness should be able to expect the same level of care as someone suffering from a heart attack or a stroke.  

It was set up in 2015 to address the issues facing patients in Northern Ireland needing acute inpatient care for mental health problems, with some wards full and many patients occupying acute beds when they would be better cared for by specialist services or in the community.  

The Commission’s report comes just days after the Northern Ireland Assembly announced that an extra £72 million would be made available for health and social care services. The Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Commission welcomed this news, but urged that equal priority is given to the needs of mental health provision and services when the funds are allocated.

Research conducted by the Commission identified a serious shortage of crisis and home treatment teams, specialist psychiatric services for people with eating disorders, personality disorders and perinatal mental illness.

It also found that 27% of people in Northern Ireland’s adult inpatient mental health units would be more appropriately cared for in either community or specialist services. Another 23% were ready to leave wards but were unable to because of a shortage of housing or community support services to care for them safely on discharge. A severe lack of access to psychological services was also highlighted. 

Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate and the highest level of mental illness in the UK but there is evidence that mental health services are seriously underfunded. The prevalence of mental illness is estimated to be at least 20% higher than in England, yet analysis from 2010 showed that the Region was spending less than half per head on people with mental illness and learning disabilities than was being spent in England in that year.

While recognising that good progress has been made over recent years, the Commission called for mental health to now be explicitly given equal priority with physical health by the newly-elected Assembly and the Department of Health. It recommends significant changes to the way that mental health services are organised in the Region, including:

The introduction of a maximum waiting time of four hours for admission to an acute psychiatric ward for adults or acceptance for home based treatment following assessment

Investment in crisis resolution and home treatment teams, specialist psychiatric services, psychological therapies and community support such as supported housing

Creating a single Mental Health Service for Northern Ireland.

“There is a good foundation of services and policy to build on and it is now time to ensure that seriously mentally ill people are now given the same priority as seriously physically ill patients,” Crisp said.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, added: “It is a scandal that some patients in Northern Ireland have to travel to England to get the care that they need. 

“When I became president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists I asked Lord Crisp to chair an independent commission into the state of acute psychiatric care. He and his team have travelled the length and breadth of the Region looking at inpatient services, finding much to like, but still not enough being done. 

“The answers lie in assessing the entire system. In particular, we stand alongside Lord Crisp in asking that there is a new target for a maximum four hour wait for admission or home treatment by 2017, and that the practice of sending seriously sick patients many miles from home and sometimes overseas, is ended by the development of community and specialist services that can give them the care they need.”             

Chair of The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Northern Ireland, Dr Gerard Lynch, said: “We welcome the report of the commission, which gives us an opportunity to take forward the Bamford vision and develop a cohesive mental health service that will deliver better outcomes for people with mental illness in Northern Ireland.”