123GP campaigners handed over a petition to the HSCB calling for adequate funding for GP based counselling

Coinciding neatly with the arrival of Storm Hector, Thursday 14 June saw mental health rights campaigners doling out ice-creams to members of the Health and Social Care Board. The reason for this seemingly strange behaviour?

The #123GP campaign had discovered, through the use of the Freedom of Information Act, that the average funding allocation per patient to access counselling via GP practices across NI is £2.29 – the price of an ice-cream!

Campaigners were gathered at the Health and Social Care Board HQ in Linenhall Street Belfast to deliver a petition of over 1800 signatures to Dr. Ian Clements, Board Chairperson, calling on the Board to adequately fund GP practices to provide access to counselling for all patients who need it. They decided to treat the Board members to ice-creams to highlight the woefully inadequate level of funding.

Over 30 campaigners came together, alongside counsellors and charities, with people travelling from as far away as Fermanagh, Derry, Draperstown and Bellaghy to deliver their petition to the HSCB. Posters displayed by campaigners carried various messages including ‘counselling works and save money – fund it’ and ‘ End the Postcode lottery – All GPs must provide counselling’.

People who had signed the petition often added their own heartfelt and urgent message to the HSCB ‘ the most vulnerable in society are being massively let down by the system’I speak as a 68 year old mother of someone who has suffered mental illness for over 25 years’.

Campaigners were pleased that Dr. Ian Clements, Board Chairperson accepted the petition on behalf of the Board and took time out of the Board meeting to talk to campaigners about the campaign call. Following the petition handover the Health and Social Care Board posted on social media that they ‘looked forward to further engagement on this very important issue’.

Karen McGuigan from STEPS mental health charity, drew on their own group’s experience of supporting people, to underline the importance of access to counselling “The majority of people who attend their GP for mental health problems tell us that they would like to be offered the chance to talk to somebody, but for many people this isn’t happening. We hope the Board will listen to what we have to say – we are speaking from experience”.

The need to improve access to counselling via GPs was also highlighted by Ms. Marie Quiery, a gestalt psychotherapist who took part in Thursday’s action in support of the campaign call:

our collective mental health is as important as our physical health to ensure a creative and resilient society. Mental health has too long been regarded as the poor cousin of the health service. The #123GP campaign is drawing attention to the importance of the GP service as the chief access point to mental health services and that it should have increased resources and awareness of mental health as a right.

Significantly, the call by campaigners for improved access to counselling provision via GP practices is not confined to campaigners and counsellors alone. GPs themselves know the value of being able to provide access to counselling as a treatment option. In a survey of 200 GPs carried out in England in 2013, two thirds of GPs said they were forced to prescribe medication to patients with depression when they felt that talking therapies would be more effective, due to the long waiting lists for therapy. [1] Northern Ireland clearly trails even further behind, with some patients not even having the option of being placed on a waiting list. Alongside this lack of provision, Northern Ireland topped a survey of 23 countries for its prescribing rates for anti-depressants, with rates being double those in similar regions of England, underscoring the urgency of addressing the current lack of counselling provision.

Dr. John Kyle a GP based in East Belfast, who supports the #123GP campaign, gives the following perspective of a practising GP “There has never been a greater need for counselling. GPs are at the front line and adequate counselling resources embedded in General Practice are not just sensible it is becoming essential. The current resources are woefully inadequate

Campaigners now look forward to meeting with the Board to progress this issue without delay.

The campaign action was recorded by NVTV and can be viewed via this link https://vimeo.com/275649198

You can read more about the campaign below.

As the first port of call for anybody concerned about their health, GPs have a vital role to play in the prevention, detection and treatment of mental ill health.  Approximately 40% of people who attend their GP do so for mental health problems ranging from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and PTSD.  For many of these people, counselling offers an effective, low cost form of treatment.

However, the #123GP campaign uncovered shocking information that shows that the average amount of money for counselling provision allocated by the HSCB to GPs per patient averages out at £2.29. The counselling budget also saw a decrease from  £1,487,787.83 in 2016/17 to £1, 448,000.00 in 2017/18; this at a time when rates of mental ill health and suicide in Northern Ireland are rising.

Additional information obtained through FOI indicates that only 67% of all GPs currently apply for HSCB funding, which would appear to be at least in part related to the funding model. This means that in practice patients face a post code lottery in accessing counselling through their GP, with many practices not offering access to counselling.

The #123GP campaign is calling for three specific improvements in the provision of mental health care by GPs, namely 1) provision of counselling 2) mental health training for GPs and 3) the employment of a mental health worker as part of the primary care team. Responsibility for implementing changes to the first of these, the provision of counselling, rests with the HSCB. Further information on the #123GP campaign can be accessed via the following links

https://www.pprproject.org/one-big-voice-shouting-together-campaigners-plan-the-123gp-campaign

https://www.pprproject.org/one-big-voice-shouting-–-mental-health-groups-kick-off-a-campaign-for-improvements-to-mental-health

The text of the online petition can be accessed here http://bit.ly/onetwothreeGP

The average allocation of £2.29 per patient was worked out as follows

  i.      Health and Social Care Board funding allocation 2018/19 for GP for provision of in-house counselling for over 18s = £1,448,000.00

    ii.      Total number of registered patients with GPs across NI (2017) = 1,970,240.00

  iii.      Minus under 16s population (which represent approx 1/5 of the NI population) = 1,576,192. (using population number for under 16s as figure for under 18s not readily available

  iv.      40% of people who attend their GP do so for mental health problems = 630, 476.80.

v.      The budget of £1,448.000 divided by 630,476.80 works out at an average of £2.29 per person