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#123GP calls on the Health and Social Care Board to fund counselling in line with need

On Wed 30 January 2019 #123GP campaigners will launch new research that shows that patients’ access to counselling through their GP is alarmingly inadequate, and is contributing directly to the escalating mental health crisis. In 2017 305 people died by suicide and that figure is predicted to have risen in 2018. Yet the Health and Social Care Board ( HSCB) who hold the budget for GP practice based counselling, has publicly stated there is an under-spend for mental health programmes and that they are forced to regularly ‘hand money back’.

The research report ‘Counselling – A Vital Tool in Equipping  GPs with Mental Health Expertise’ will be launched in the Long Gallery, Stormont, at an event sponsored by the Assembly’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Suicide Prevention. Participants in the event are set to include people directly affected by the issues, GPs, counsellors, professional accreditation bodies, political representatives, mental health charities and Health Trust officials. The Health and Social Care Board will also be in attendance.

#123GP research found that

·         Only two thirds of GP practices provide access to counselling in their practice and the percentage has dropped in the past year.

·         A quarter of patients wait for 4 months or more for an initial appointment with a counsellor in their GP practice.

·         Official figures show that waiting times for access to counselling via the Primary Care Talking Therapy Hubs are even longer, with data from some Trusts revealing waiting times of 7 months. 

·         Patients are limited to an average of 6 sessions only, which they feel is inadequate to help improve their mental health

·          No official waiting time targets exist and some Trusts do not monitor waiting times

·         Funding provided by the HSCB for GP practice based counselling is entirely inadequate, averaging at £2.29 per patient if there was full uptake by all patients who could benefit from it.

Patients, GPs and counsellors alike recognise the seriousness of the situation and the need for urgent action.

Christine Rocks, who lost her daughter Samantha to suicide 12 years ago, highlights the urgency of getting this issue addressed “access to counselling through your GP practice is a vital treatment option for people with mental health problems or for those battling suicidal thoughts. But getting to see a counsellor is a post code lottery, it totally depends on where you live. Even when your practice has a counsellor we know that people wait for up to 7 months to be seen. The awful reality is that some people will be dead before they get the help they need. The HSCB needs to at least double the amount of money it is putting into GP practice based counselling, and do it now”.

GPs also highlight the critical role that the provision of practice based counselling can play in effectively treating mental health problems at primary care level, thus reducing the need for referrals into secondary mental health care services. Dr. David Johnston FRCGP points out


this is a very valuable service that helps GPs to provide better services locally. It not only reduces referrals to secondary care but also improves patient outcomes. Currently due to funding it is not accessible to all patients across the country.  There needs to be some work done to ensure every patient in every practice can access it should they need to”.


Mr. Bobby Carlin, a Counsellor and Counselling Services Manager in the Ballymena area explains how having a counselling service based in the GP practice makes it accessible to people ‘Lots of clients would never had thought about counselling as an option if it wasn’t offered by their GP but also based within the GP practice. This is a vital service which should be expanded as a model of best practice.’

In August 2018 over 40 organisations and individuals issued a joint call to the HSCB to ensure that funding for counselling is significantly increased in line with need and that access to counselling provision in all GP practices is made available.

#123GP campaigners met with the Health and Social Care Board in December 2018 and were deeply disappointed by the ‘business as usual’ attitude displayed by Board officials at that meeting, with the Board’s position being one of denying that any issues existed in relation to access to counselling within primary care.  The Board’s Finance Director Mr. Paul Cummings stated that the issue with mental health was not funding, but staff availability and that he regularly ‘hand money back’ for mental health programmes. Campaigners put a number of questions to the Board to answer which they agreed to by 30 January 2019.

#123GP campaigners plan to monitor improvements made by the Board in respect of the issues identified, against two key indicators

1. Percentage of GP practices that utilise HSCB funding for the provision of practices based counselling

2. Waiting times for patients for counselling, from referral to their GP to the date of their first counselling session.

Among the recommendations being put forward by #123GP are an immediate doubling of the funding allocation to LES practice based counselling to clear current waiting lists, and the introduction of a waiting time target of 28 days for counselling.

A copy of the report can be accessed via this link https://www.pprproject.org/resource-document/counselling-a-vital-tool-in...