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Mental Health in Northern Ireland

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Cara Hunter

Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for East Londonderry

 Irish Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) politician serving as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA) since 18 May 2020.

Cara Hunter, Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for East Londonderry, writes exclusively for Chamber on the unique challenges in tackling mental health issues in Northern Ireland.

For each family in Northern Ireland, there is undoubtedly an experience with suicide and mental ill health. Villages and towns, sports clubs, schools and workplaces. Our homeplace is shrouded by the harrowing presence of seemingly ever-present grief.

Twenty-five years following the negotiation of peace on this island, we have still not reconciled the issue of deepening mental ill-health in communities across the North. We have a cohort of young adults blessed by virtue of growing up surrounded by relative peace, yet burdened with unaddressed intergenerational trauma, and widespread contingents of men and women born during the conflict who have never received the help they deserve to deal with their unspoken trauma.

Casual conversations with parents and friends about people they knew, fellow citizens being murdered, communities being tragically blown apart, and innocents being locked up for years without charge are a characteristic hallmark of life for many young people throughout the North and is one particular area that seems shocking to outsiders who observe the dialogue over dinner.

“Committing to fully funding the mental health strategy must be a national priority”.

Cara Hunter MLA

While the past, and the resulting intergenerational trauma, can be pointed to as a huge contributing factor towards the situation we are now in, the way in which those responsible have failed to work together towards a holistic mental healthcare system is deplorable leaving our vulnerable and unwell population on the edge. Charities and voluntary agencies such as Pure Mental, a group of young people who have led on policy development in this area, are consistently left to pick up the pieces, constantly frustrated at the gaps the Government have failed to fill. Committing to fully funding the mental health strategy must be a national priority.

Similarly, poverty has been an unrelenting force throughout the existence of our current state, which undercuts the very basis of fully realised civic participation in our society. I believe we must effectively tackle poverty, particularly child poverty, in our communities, if we wish to resolve the undercurrent of widespread poor mental health in Northern Ireland. Socio-economic status relates directly, in many instances, to the quality of mental health one will experience at varying points throughout their life. Therefore, as a public representative, I shall continue to work towards a joint cross-community commitment tackling the corroding issues of widespread generational poverty and violence in our communities as a national priority, so we may resolve the pervasive issue of mental ill-health in Northern Ireland.

Through specific policies, we can form a vanguard around the first five years of a child’s life in Northern Ireland and ensure an equal start for every person born into this place. Such policies include a child payment based on the income of parents, the monthly supply of books for children under the age of three years old –  a project the SDLP have been successful in piloting through Belfast City Council, and maternity packages encouraging increased uptake in antenatal care and providing necessary materials for new-borns.

We must choose to put families ahead of petty party politics and constant sectarian squabbles. Unstable and uncertain governments throughout the duration of devolution have allowed little advancement to occur in the provision of adequate mental health services. The pandemic underlined the seriously weakened state that our health service is in. As a start, the SDLP would introduce a junior minister for mental health to ensure a specific focus on mental health at the executive table.

Simple grassroots initiatives like the introduction of mental health first aiders in educational settings and workplaces, could make a huge difference in how average citizens are trained to identify mental ill-health and offer support. The success of primary school counselling has shown that from a young age, we can introduce an awareness of mental health and ingratiate this into our entire education system.

Fighting towards an equal start for every child across this island is one of the key starting places for any investment if we are interested in safeguarding our population’s mental health for the future. I, and the SDLP, are determined to set up the children of Northern Ireland for success, while allowing their parents to benefit from 30 hours a week of free childcare.

The situation regarding mental ill-health in Northern Ireland can improve drastically, and I will continue to work every day towards changing it utterly. However, we must come together in a cross-community fashion and choose to place the health crisis our people are facing as our priority.

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