Post-code lottery when it comes to mental health services in Northern Ireland

Dozens of GP practices in Northern Ireland have stopped providing in-house counselling in the last year.

Under a Freedom of Information request, obtained by PPR (Participation and the Practice of Rights), it has emerged that 26 practices have cut their counsellor services.

Ballyclare woman Kirsty Scott sought support after losing her son and husband in 2015. She is highly concerned about the loss of councillors within doctor surgeries.

"To me, it's disgusting because it's the simple thing sometimes, like just needing to talk”, she said.

PPR campaigners claim there is "a postcode lottery" when it comes to accessing mental health services.

Sara Boyce said: "People are waiting weeks and months to access support, it's still really badly underfunded, yet this is at the point when the need is greatest."

But NI's mental health champion has insisted that therapy hubs offered by health trust are the preferred way forward.

Professor Siobhan O'Neill said this is the vision set out in the mental health strategy and that full funding is needed to enhance these hubs, in order to cut lengthy waiting lists.

"We have actions within that strategy around the expansion of therapies through therapy hubs and that's a good direction to go in, because it means there will be a range of therapies available at times that suit people. We're talking about times when GP practices might be closed."

As health trusts work to reduce waiting lists they point to the added challenges presented by the pandemic.

While some working in the community and voluntary say their services are inundated.

Karen is based out West Belfast Wellbeing Forum, a volunteer led counselling service, that offers counselling and other therapies. It was set up at the end of 2021 in response to a growing need for mental health support in the community.

"It's a relief for people to walk through our doors and be seen right away and be placed within a therapy setting. GP surgeries are advising people to come to us.

"Money needs to be put into the community sector, because they're the people on the ground, rolling up their sleeves and chipping in. We just have volunteers here trying their best."