Mental health is fundamental to our wellbeing as individuals, communities, and as a society. While there are many competing and important issues under discussion during General Election 2020, it’s essential that mental health is kept in focus as an urgent priority issue for meaningful progress. During the next two weeks, candidates will be knocking to our doors, or taking part in election debates and policy discussions on our televisions and airwaves.
Here are three areas we believe we should be asking candidates about and identifying for meaningful progress from our future representatives.
1. How will you ensure a human rights approach to mental health?
The cornerstone of our human right to health is the opportunity to achieve the ‘highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’. This right to physical and mental health - a right which should be enjoyed by everyone - includes access to basic mental healthcare.
However, mental health services in Ireland remain under-resourced, with long waiting lists for access. Repeated infringements of the rights of people using mental health services have been highlighted by the Mental Health Commission. Although spending on mental health services has increased, it still remains well below the 10% health budget allocation recommended by the 10-year healthcare strategy, Sláintecare, standing at 6% today. Closing this gap is crucial to ensuring appropriate access to and high standards in our mental health services.
Meanwhile, laws protecting the human rights of people accessing mental health services, and especially people who are involuntarily admitted, are outdated and need to be reformed urgently to strengthen human rights protections. New legislation has been drafted and is under review with the Mental Health Commission: it’s essential that the incoming government takes action to enact it. Adequate funding also needs to be made available to open the long overdue Decision Support Service, so that the outdated wards of court system can be replaced.
More emphasis needs to be given to the State’s obligations under the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ratified by Ireland in 2018. This year, Ireland will be reviewed for the first time by the UN Committee for the CRPD. This provides an invaluable opportunity to spotlight and advance the human rights of people experiencing a psychosocial disability or ongoing mental health difficulties. Hearing from candidates on what they will do to support these rights and to help reduce the damaging discrimination people can experience in families, communities or the workplace is important.
2. What will you do to support the mental health of young people?
We know that many mental health difficulties begin before the age of 18, and worrying trends in relation to rates of self-harm amongst young people are extremely concerning. International experts and advocacy groups, such as the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children, have long been calling for increased global investment and attention to mental health promotion and responses for young people.
Yet, in Ireland, mental health services for children and young people are currently inadequate: we continue to see long waiting lists, and the inappropriate admission of young people to adult services, for example. Mental health received the lowest grade of all areas in the Children’s Rights Alliance’s annual ‘Report Card' on the Government’s performance in relation to children’s rights.
This is a situation that needs to change urgently. We should ask our candidates how they plan to support and protect not just the mental health of today’s young people, but the generations that will follow them.
3. How are you going to protect the mental health of marginalised groups?
Our mental health is influenced by the circumstances and environments we live in, with increasing understanding of the social determinants of mental health. Social disadvantage, inequality, and the experience of trauma are intrinsically linked with mental health difficulties in society, as highlighted in the most recent report on mental health by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.
This creates an urgent need to meaningfully meet the mental health needs of disadvantaged groups in society who are experiencing higher rates of mental health difficulties.
The mental health needs of the Traveller community, in particular, have been startlingly highlighted through the disproportionate rates of self-harm and suicide in the community over recent years. High rates of mental health difficulties continue among people experiencing homelessness, with the impact of homelessness on mental health, including children’s mental health, well-documented. It is imperative that we ask candidates what they will do not only to address the social disadvantages which affect mental health, but to enhance and make available specialist mental health services for groups experiencing marginalisation or increased vulnerability.