Children’s mental health epidemic must be tackled now, says charity worker

A Co Down man who has been in rehab for nine years and has set up his own charity has urged the executive to ‘step up’ and tackle the mental health epidemic he says is sweeping the youth of North Ireland.

aul Lavery formed Newcastle Community Outreach (NCO) nearly four years ago and launched an online immediate response system last month, meaning that with the click of a button a vulnerable youngster can be taken to a room secure virtual session with an outreach worker in minutes.

He believes this eliminates “the immediate danger of risk or death”.

“I had a young boy a few years ago and he contacted me. I was out of town and told him to go to a certain center to get in touch with one of the facilitators of youth right away,” he said.

“In that hour he reached out and he couldn’t get to it. I sent him another message saying to wait until I get back and I’ll take it.

Paul noted that the young man never opened the message and committed suicide within an hour of the first message.

“I promised myself I would do everything I could to ensure this never happened again and that’s where the brief online intervention came from, just to make it available,” he told the Belfast Telegraph,

“If they need someone instantly, it’s not ‘Wait six weeks, wait until we have a team to come to you’. We’ll get you online with someone within five minutes.

At the end of November 2021, Department of Health figures show that more than 2,000 children across Northern Ireland were waiting to access mental health services.

Some 944 of these children – almost half of the list – have been waiting for more than nine weeks.

According to an Assembly research paper published in 2021, the number of lives lost to suicide in Northern Ireland has increased by more than 30% over the past four years.

In addition, a national survey published by a consortium of health professional bodies found that a significantly higher percentage of young people who died by suicide in Northern Ireland had a history of alcohol and drug abuse compared to rest of the UK.

For now, Paul said he was setting ‘realistic boundaries which means he will have to have fixed hours’ and will focus initially on the Newry, Morne and Down council district.

“We know if we run this and get traction behind it will be overwhelmed,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “My plan for NCO – I have to deliver it in my own community, but I plan to deliver it to all communities in Northern Ireland over the next five years.”

NCO was granted official charity status during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The group focuses on helping and improving the well-being of local people between the ages of 11 and 25, and Paul said he has cared for children as young as 12 who actively engage in drug use.

“Mental health and addiction issues go hand in hand, and we see that every day in young people,” he said.

The Newcastle native said his team had met with the education board, council and members of the police to try to brainstorm incentives to ‘get children off the streets’ before the pandemic, but he thinks that since the Covid-19 outbreak, mental health resources and initiatives to help young people have suffered “horrible” damage.

“All attention and responsibility has been focused on Covid and although it is there and real, there are more and more people dying by suicide every year.

“They don’t get the support. I’ve seen young people evolve in the last 18 months and it’s horrible.

“I just want to ask those in Stormont if they are going to step up for the mental health epidemic as much as they have stepped up for the coronavirus pandemic. They need to help small charities and do bigger things. They need to do more financially.

The Department of Health has acknowledged that “Child and Youth Mental Health Services (CAMHS) has faced significant pressure in recent years” due to increased demand for services, resource constraints and the worsening of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said that “a number of measures have been put in place to help CAMHS cope with short-term pressures and to facilitate longer-term planning”, including “ongoing recruitment campaigns and the redeployment of staff to fill vacancies and long-term absences. ”.

“In 2020 the Department allocated an additional £750,000 to tackle waiting lists and provided an additional £500,000 this year to alleviate pressures resulting from an increase in the number of young people with higher levels of acuity in relation to eating disorders.

He added that work is currently underway to establish a Managed Care Network (MCN) for acute CAMHS, which will allow clinical expertise to be shared across the region.

“While notable progress has been made, it is expected that longer-term improvements to CAMHS will be achieved through the implementation of the new Mental Health Strategy 2021-31, which includes, among other priorities, a commitment to increase funding for CAMHS to 10% of the overall mental health budget,” the spokesperson concluded.

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