A new briefing paper from the Assembly’s Research and Information Service has highlighted the continuation of a post-code lottery in relation to talking therapies provision, despite cross-party support for it to be ended. It also confirms a significant reduction in the number of GP practices providing in-house counselling.
The paper, requested by SDLP MLA Mark H. Durkan, provides an overview of the availability of talking therapies in the north of Ireland, the UK and the Republic of Ireland. It exposes the totally inadequate provision in NI compared with other regions, in particular with England.
The paper notes that with the exception of England, there is a lack of robust standardised data that systematically records both the availability and outcomes of talking therapies across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
It concludes that while improving access to and availability of talking therapies is a central component of the ten-year Mental Health Strategy ‘it is evident that unless the issues that currently exist, including piecemeal data collection, uneven geographic spread and insufficient funding are given priority, an opportunity to meaningfully improve the mental health and emotional well-being of people in NI will continue to be missed’.
Data presented in this paper confirms that access to this vital service continues to be deeply unequal, largely determined by your post-code and/or income.
In 2021/22 while an overall total of 68% of GP practices provided in-house counselling, the percentage ranged from 52% in the Southern Trust and 53% in the Belfast Trust to 83% in the Northern Trust.
Alarmingly, data obtained by PPR under Freedom of Information for 2021, shows a plummeting in counselling provision in GP practices in the Belfast Trust in particular, from 70% of practices in 2020 to just 53% in 2021.
A further breakdown of Belfast Trust data, by the four GP Federation areas, shows that West Belfast has the poorest provision, with only 40% of GP practices offering in-house talking therapy, compared with 66% in East Belfast and an overall average of 53%.
The paper also examines provision of talking therapies by the Trust run Talking Therapy/Emotional Wellbeing Hubs, the other referral route open to GP practices. While not providing any data analysis, it notes that Mental Health Strategy contains a commitment to expand these Hubs to ensure coverage across all of the north of Ireland. However, within the limited time allocated for the briefing paper, its authors noted that no information on progress regarding the expansion of the Hubs was provided by the Department of Health.
In 2021, in response to a high profile campaign by #123GP, all political parties, with the exception of the UUP, signed a Consensus Statement, supporting the introduction of a 28 day waiting time target for counselling, counselling availability for all who need it regardless of where they live and the recognition and resourcing of the role of local community based providers.
In its digital Assembly Election Hustings, PPR has invited all election candidates to outline their position in relation to the introduction of a 28-day waiting time target for talking therapy and how, if elected, they would ensure its implementation.
Click here to find out how you can ask your election candidates to respond to this important question.