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The six main political parties have united in a call to Richard Pengelly, Permanent Secretary Department of Health to take urgent action to ensure that all those who require counselling within primary care services can access it in a timely and appropriate manner.

In a letter signed by DUP, SF, SDLP, UUP, Alliance and Green Party MLAs, they highlight the fact that despite Northern Ireland being in the midst of an escalating mental health crisis, with the number of deaths by suicide continuing to rise, only two thirds of GP practices have an in-house counsellor, and patients wait up to 7 months to be seen. The letter also highlights the fact that no official waiting times exist for accessing counselling, and some Health Trusts do not monitor waiting times at all. The letter goes on to note that the budget allocated for in-house provision of counselling has increased only nominally (4%) over the last 4 years, despite it being increasingly overspent each year.

MLAs note that for people struggling with their mental health, getting the right help at the right time is vitally important, both for improving a person’s recovery and in preventing their mental health from deteriorating. They recognise that over 90% of people with mental health problems will be seen first by their GP, with approximately 40% of GP appointments being related to mental health, making it critical that GPs are equipped with mental health expertise, including access to counselling provision.

In the letter MLAs call on Mr. Richard Pengelly, Permanent Secretary Department of Health to urgently address this issue, by taking the following steps

-          To re-allocate any end of year under-spend to immediately double the current funding for LES GP practice based funding in order to tackle the waiting lists

-          To work with the HSCB to ensure a review of the existing funding model is undertaken, so that funding is allocated on the basis of need, in a transparent manner and on a recurrent basis.

-          To introduce a waiting time target of 28 days from GP referral to first counselling appointment.

MLAs also informed Mr. Pengelly that they will be supporting the #123GP campaign throughout 2019 to monitor improvements against two human rights indicators the campaign has selected 1) an increase in the number of GP practices with an in-house counsellor and 2) a decrease in appointment waiting times.

The letter ends by stating “Ensuring that everyone who needs it can access counselling in a timely way with adequate provision, is not only vitally important for those people impacted, but is also a preventative and cost effective measure for the Department of Health”.