The Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Professor Michael McBride has failed to provide adequate answers to issues surrounding the lack of publicly available mental health data, leading New Script mental health campaigners to question whether the Department of Health is deliberately withholding this data.
The Department of Health does not make publicly and routinely available any key data sets on mental health, including on Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS), adult mental health services, psychological services, counselling and talking therapies.
The sole mental health data set that is published on the Department of Health’s website is mental health in-patient data. By contrast NHS England has a Mental Health Data Hub, which publishes a wide range of mental health data on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis.
A highly critical review into mental health data in NI by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) found that mental health statistics in NI were not serving the public good, by not enabling a range of statistics users to answer key important questions on a particular topic.
This review highlighted a scarcity of robust mental health data, no single point of access to statistics on mental health, no accurate regional data picture and a fragmented IT infrastructure. These failures impact on a wide range of sectors, including the general public, patients, carers, commissioners, regulatory bodies, researchers and the media.
Such was the extent of the OSR’s concern that it recommended the Department of Health consider the development of a separate mental health data strategy to support the Mental Health Strategy.
PPR raised all of these concerns with the Chief Medical Officer on 22 February 2023, at a public event in the Long Gallery, Stormont, when he undertook to explore the issues raised.
PPR received a written response from the CMO dated 1 March 2023. In the interests of transparency and accountability we are publishing this letter.
In his response, Professor McBride, whose role it is to recommend policy changes to improve public health outcomes, stated that the Department continues to receive monthly data from all Trusts in relation to psychological therapy services as well as monthly waiting time figures.
Image caption: Professor McBride’s response failed to address the central point raised by mental health campaigners, namely that none of the data sets requested are available publicly.
Professor McBride’s response failed to address the central point raised, that none of these data sets are available publicly. PPR is forced to seek all mental health data it requires via Freedom of Information, which is a lengthy, bureaucratic process, is unnecessary and wasteful of resources. It also denies the entitlement of citizens to public information and fundamentally undermines the ability of civic society to hold government to account, a key tenet of any democracy.
Professor McBride also referenced the Mental Health Strategy Outcomes Framework, which he stated, ‘reflects the drive towards improving outcomes through evidence-based practice and care’.
The development of a regional Outcomes Framework was an action committed to in the Mental Health Strategy. The intended outcome was a robust data set which is comparable across Trusts, to measure performance and determine what works. The Mental Health Strategy was published in June 2021, yet in May 2023, that Outcomes Framework has still not been published.
Unbelievably, the situation in relation to mental health data has worsened since the closure of the Health and Social Care Board in March 2022. The HSCB published mental health performance data on CAMHS, adult mental health services and psychological therapies, in its monthly Board reports. This information was not readily accessible and statistic users needed to know where to find it; nonetheless, it was published.
Following its closure in March 2022, the Department of Health told PPR that ‘there is now no statutory requirement for the publication of performance information’. ( Email to PPR 8 July 2022, available on request.
The NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) has repeatedly called on the Department of Health to publish standardised regional CAMHS data, noting that ‘it is important that mental health statistics are released in line with other health statistical reports and we urge the Department of Health to progress this’.
None of this was addressed by Professor McBride in his response. Which begs the question – why not? In whose interest is it to suppress mental health data that the public is entitled to access?
As outlined above, the Department of Health and the CMO are fully aware of the issues. However, instead of addressing these issues, they have stopped publishing key data sets previously published.
The Department of Health’s award winning Covid-19 dashboard demonstrated that the capability exists to develop, at unprecedented speed, systems to deliver data, evidence, analysis, research and evaluation, vital to make critical decisions in relation to health services. Systems that allowed the data to be fully accessible to citizens. This capability must now be harnessed in the service of mental health data.