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Proposals are “simple, yet far reaching” focusing on training, appointment systems and reducing reliance on prescription of medication as the main treatment option


A coalition of mental health groups from across NI have today launched a campaign calling on GPs and the Health and Social Care Board to take simple, yet far reaching  steps to improve the treatment of patients experiencing mental health issues.


The Mental Health Rights Campaign, supported by the Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) organisation, is made up of patients and carers who have first-hand experience of failing services across all Trust areas. Their campaign report entitled Beyond a Spin of the Wheel – Ensuring timely and appropriate mental health care from GPsidentifies key issues and makes a series of  recommendations designed to ensure those with mental health issues can access care more easily.


Issues highlighted in the report include the difficulty of securing appointments when needed, coupled with the lack of transparency in the booking system:


“We can only make appointments on a Monday, when you try to ring and make appointments the line is busy all day, by the time you get through there are no appointments left and then you have to wait until the next morning to try again”


Lack of training in mental health was also identified as a key issue:


“I feel my GP surgery is very good most of the time but with mental health they struggle to understand and I think they aren’t trained to deal with it”


The over-reliance by GPs on prescribing medication as the sole treatment option for mental health was also reported:


“ if people go in and say they are depressed, they write you a prescription, they don’t question anything, like how do you think things are, what would help you, it’s not like a conversation they have, it’s just like well here’s tablets go ahead


Lynda McEldowney, from STEPS in Draperstown, one of the member groups involved in the campaign said:


People from our area know how difficult it can be to get an appointment with a GP and when you’re experiencing ill mental health this can add to the distress. For someone with ill mental health just plucking up the courage to pick up the phone to make an appointment can be a big step. We value the partnership working with our local GPs and appreciate the pressure on the service. On average 1 in 3 appointments relate to mental health therefore we hope by working together it will benefit everyone involved


The urgency of addressing the issues highlighted in the report is underscored by the facts and figures. It is estimated that approximately 91% of people with a mental health problem will be treated in the primary care system.  However, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners in NI, NI has the lowest GP coverage per head of population in the UK, and a 20% shortage of GPs in the region. GP list sizes have increased by 13% over the last ten years, but GP only received 8.2% of health service spending deprived primary care delivering 90% of health contacts. 


Research by members of the Mental Health Rights campaign in 2015 found that 58% of people surveyed thought that waiting times to be seen by a GP were unsatisfactory.   A Patient and Client Council report on access to GP services found that 52% said accessing their GP practice was ‘not easy’.

Beyond a Spin of the Wheel makes a series of recommendations for action which would significantly improve primary mental health care services, which in turn would alleviate pressure on emergency services, prevent deteriorating conditions among patients, as well as relieving intolerable stress and anxiety among carers. These include:

  • mandatory  mental health training for GPs and other relevant GP practice staff e.g. receptionists
  • Other health professionals with the necessary skills and expertise in mental health to work alongside the GP as part of a multi-disciplinary team 
  • ensuring confidentiality and appropriate responses by establishing a designated appointments number for help in a mental health crisis.
  • instituting a separate appointment system – with a certain percentage of all appointments kept aside for people with mental health problems
  • A ‘red flag’ on a patients’ file so receptionists know that patient has mental health issues
  • longer appointments including option of routinely booking a double appointment for mental health issues


Dr John Kyle a Belfast based GP, who wrote the foreword to the report, said:


“Improving the service will not be quick or easy, but these recommendations deserve serious consideration. Greater financial investment however is unavoidable.”