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top messing about and provide the funding that's needed for counselling. Now!' United call goes out from mid Ulster to Department for Health to increase funding for counselling

SAM88, a suicide prevention charity based in the mid-Ulster area held a very successful community meeting in Magherafelt on Tuesday 18 June. The theme of the meeting was ‘Counselling Saves Lives – it is a vital tool for GPs in suicide prevention and mental health treatment – so why is it so hard to access it? The meeting was attended by a mix of local people, mental health charities, counsellors and elected representatives. Speakers included Christine Rocks SAM88, Bobby Carlin Counsellor and Barry Murray #123GP campaign.

The united message going from this meeting to the Department of Health and the Health and Social Care Board was neatly summed up by the words of one of those in attendance       “stop messing about and provide the funding for counselling that’s needed. Now!”

Christine Rocks one of the meeting organisers, who lost her daughter Samantha to suicide 12 years ago, explained their reason behind organising the meeting:

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. We know that in 2017 65 people in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust alone died by suicide. The awful reality is that some people will be dead before they get the help they need. The Health and Social Care Board needs to at least double the amount of money it is putting into GP practice based counselling, and do it now”.

Research carried out by the #123GP campaign has found that only two thirds of GP practices have an in-house counsellor, that waiting times for an initial appointment are up to 7 months, that people are offered a maximum of 5-6 sessions and that the average spend on in-house counselling in GP practices is the price of an ice-cream - £2.29!

The meeting heard from Mr. Bobby Carlin, a Counsellor and Counselling Services Manager in the Ballymena area.  Bobby outlined what is involved in counselling and how the process works. He explained 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.’

Bobby highlighted the total inadequacy of the current funding provided and called for GP practice based counselling to be placed on a proper funding footing.

Barry Murray #123GP campaign outlined what the campaign has been doing since it was launched in June 2018 and what progress it has made. Among the campaign actions have been: cross-party support secured with all parties writing to the Permanent Secretary Department of Health, a petition of over 2000 signatures delivered to the Health and Social Care Board, an open letter from 40 plus organisations and individuals sent to the Board, campaign endorsements from bodies such as the British Association Counselling and Psychotherapy and the launch of new research in Stormont’s Long Gallery in January 2019. Barry also highlighted the lack of any sense of urgency or even concern which campaigners have been met with from the Health and Social Care Board and made it very clear that campaigners would not be deterred by such indifference.

The results of a short survey completed by those present tallied with the findings of a larger survey carried out by #123GP in 2018 – lack of knowledge and lengthy waiting times for appointments.

The majority of people at the meeting didn’t know whether their GP practice had a counsellor available through the practice, and only a third said they were aware that their practice did have a counsellor. People generally were not aware of the reasons why their practice didn’t provide access to an in-house counsellor, although one person stated “I am certain that my own GP practice has no counselling service simply because they have not made use of available funding”.

Those with a counsellor in their GP practice said that waiting times were at a minimum over a month, with the majority of people indicating that waiting times were over 3 months. A total of 81% of people said that waiting times were over 28 days. The impact of lengthy waiting times to be seen was repeatedly highlighted

“people need help as soon as possible, not 6 months, it could be too late by then”.

“a patient coming to the GP with difficulties around mental health, death, bereavement, needs help immediately”

There was unanimous support for all GP practices to be equipped with an in-house counsellor “it is a vital service for everybody in the community. Many people who are suffering from poor mental health may not know the correct channel to go down to access counselling therefore GP surgeries are the best referral route”.

People emphasised that this service should be good quality, consistent and provided in an appropriate setting within the practice, not in the equivalent of a store room which has been some people’s experience of accessing counselling in their practice. The importance of being able to access a sufficient number of sessions was also underlined “service should cover at least a reasonable defined number of sessions”. #123GP’s larger survey found that a de facto cap on the number of sessions exists, with an average of 5-6 sessions only being provided.

People also pointed out that having a counsellor in a GP practice was a ‘win-win’ for both patients and doctors “because there are so many people suffering from mental health related illnesses doctors just can’t cope at all. People will know that if a counsellor is there they can get help with no delay”.

Politicians in attendance, including Patsy McGlone SDLP MLA, Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin MLA, Councillor Welsey Browne DUP and Councillor Christine McFlynn SDLP all pledged their support for the #123GP campaign. Patsy McGlone MLA suggested that an all party delegation to the Department of Health would be a useful next step in the campaign.

The meeting was closed by Josie McKernan SAM88 who thanked everybody from coming and invited them to join SAM88 on Wed 26 June for a coffee and follow up chat in Cuppacinos. SAM88 meets every Wed at 11am in Cuppacinos Cookstown. For further information on SAM88 contact Christine Rocks on 07845600231 or email cpatricia1109@gmail.com.

For further information on the #123GP campaign contact either Christine Rocks ( contact details above) or Sara Boyce PPR  on 90 313315 or email sara@pprproject.org

Follow #123GP on twitter @123GPCampaign or facebook Mental Health Rights Campaign