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In a keynote address to an audience of mental health rights campaigners, the world's leading spokesperson for the right to health warned that policy makers around the world have become too reliant on the medical profession to treat mental ill health.

Professor Dainius Púras - the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health - was speaking at PPR's Mental Health Congress, which took place in the Spectrum Centre on the Shankill Road in Belfast on 10 October 2019.

Addressing the need for a holistic approach to the challenges of mental health, with an emphasis on the social and economic context of those suffering, Professor Púras said:

"The global community expected too much from biomedical interventions.

"The idea was that if we inform everyone that mental health diseases are the same as physical ones, that there will be no stigma. But if you tell someone, “This is your disease, this is your brain,” you do not empower, you disempower.

"The modern idea is to invest in resilience of people, families, communities and not to rely too much on treating it as just a biomedical issue."

The Mental Health Congress brought together activists, practioners and service users to mark World Mental Health Day by exploring ways of working together to put pressure on local decision makers to greatly improve their approach to the challenges of mental ill health and suicide.

In the absence of a Stormont Executive, all eyes were on the Department of Health's Permanent Secretary, Richard Pengelly, and what he can and should be doing within the remit of his office to enact effective changes in the allocation of resources in favour of treating poor mental health in an adequate and timely fashion, with an emphasis on bringing deaths by suicide down to zero.

 

PPR's own Right to Health Policy Officer/Organiser, Sara Boyce, echoed what Professor Púras said.

"It is government’s own policies a lot of the time – creating inequality and discrimination – that are really impacting on people’s mental ill health.

"Whether it’s children and young people and academic selection, or lack of housing and the housing crisis, and lack of mental health services, these policies are driving people to despair.

"These are the drivers of poor mental health, and government needs to start joining up the dots.

"About £1.6m of a budget is given to GPs every year to provide counselling, but we know that only two thirds of practices have a counsellor. Waiting lists are up to seven months. Counsellors at our congress today have said that if you even double that money (up to about £3m) we could clear our waiting lists.

"It’s one small part of the problem that needs to be addressed, but it’s something that Richard Pengelly could do in the morning – it doesn’t require Stormont to be back in place."

Among the delegates was was Karen McGuigan from Suicide Talking Educating Preventing Support (S.T.E.P.S.) from Draperstown - a community based initiative that seeks to combat the stigma around suicide and mental health, in order to ensure that everyone suffering from mental ill health seeks, and gets access to effective treatment at the earliest possible stage.

She spoke about the journey that the campaign has been on over the past decade.

"Draperstown was refered to as the suicide capital of Mid Ulster. I lost a cousin to suicide in 2000, and another in 2008. The only thing that changed during that time was that people stopped being shocked.

"In 2012 a group of us got together and decided, "Something has to be done."

"We started with one counsellor, now we have nine. We can show you the evidence of what has worked in our community, and it is real partnership working.

"The people living with mental ill health, the people caring for them, and the people bereaved by suicide are absolutely at the heart of everything we do."

Over 100 people registered to attend the event, where delegates heard from grassroots activists and service users who all demanded the same thing, that the Department of Health increase spending to ensure that everyone who needs it can access adequate treatment in time to prevent serious ill health and an increased risk of suicide.

Of particular note was actor Ciarán Nolan, who performed the one-man play, Dear Richard Pengelly.

Addressing a phantom Mr Pengelly, Ciarán took the audience on a tragi-comic journey through the experience of trying to access mental health treatment.

As haunting as it was humourous the play, written by Finn Kennedy in collaboration with #123GP activists, resonated with the experiences of many audience members, as Ciarán's protagonist revealed the painful sting in the tail of a farcical scenario.

What became clear by the end of the day was that the Right to Health movement is determined to keep up the pressure on the Permanent Secretary until their demands around increased spending on mental health services are met.

What was also clear was that adequate treatment for all is only the beginning of combating our mental health crisis, and that without the context of a just and caring society, there will continue to be unecessary and avoidable suffering.

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