By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

Professor Siobhan O’Neill has written for and been interviewed in various issues of VIEW since the magazine was first published in 2012.

She has been a passionate advocate for better mental health services in Northern Ireland and for the need to develop an effective suicide prevention strategy. I was keen to hear her views about her new position as Mental Health Champion. She was appointed to the role in September this year by Health Minister Robin Swann after acting in the role on an interim basis.

I started off our interview by asking Professor O’Neill how would her new role fit in with her ongoing research work for the University of Ulster?

“I’ll be working for around three days a week which will allow me some time to continue my academic work.” She accepted that she faced a huge challenge in her new role. “There is probably more people now than ever who are struggling with their mental health,” said Prof O’Neill.

She also said that the pandemic had a huge effect on mental health.

Northern Ireland’s new Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan O’Neill

But rather than sounding dispirited at the task facing her, Prof O’Neill struck an optimistic note. “It’s an amazing time in terms of policy,” she said. “For the first time ever we have a 10-year mental health strategy. We have a plan that has been co-produced. It’s not perfect but it’s nearly there.”

A budget of £500,000 has been allocated per year to the office of the Mental Health Champion. At the moment Prof O’Neill has a team of five people supporting her in the work.

I asked her would the 10-year strategy change how Northern Ireland was treated compared to the other regions in the United Kingdom?

“We need £1.2 billion for the strategy over 10 years. It’s not a huge ask. It’s about doing this thing right and pulling us up to be in the same position as other jurisdictions. Every single government department in Northern Ireland is going to have to pay for this. One of the biggest challenges is to make sure that the political parties commit to full funding for the full implementation of the 10-year strategy.”

I asked Prof O’Neill would the 10-year strategy be able to make huge inroads given that before the pandemic we had witnessed a health service under massive pressure. I put it to her that the situation now must be even more difficult.

“We are talking about conditions that are treatable,” she replied. “Mental illness can be treated. It can be prevented. It’s about making sure that we have a workforce who are able to work in mental health services. It’s also about going in early to help prevent mental illness. We know that if we invest in the early years that we will make a huge difference. All of this can be demonstrated by evidence.”

I asked Prof O’Neill about remarks made by Health Minister Robin Swann that GPs would have a key role in helping to implement the 10-year strategy. Given that many people are having difficulties – because of the pandemic – in actually getting face-to-face meetings in their surgeries, how would this actually work in practice?

“I don’t necessarily agree that this strategy does put an increased focus on GPs,” she replied.

“Doctors are managing the majority of people with mental health problems in Northern Ireland. That’s the reality. Most people in Northern Ireland with mental health issues are being treated with anti-depressants and/or counselling.

“The community/voluntary sector is also taking a huge hit in terms of helping people with mental health problems.”

She pointed out that psychological therapy hubs, which will assist doctors, are going to be expanded. “Right now GPs are swamped. They need a lot more resources,” she said.

“The point of the strategy is that if someone needs treatment for mental illness then they will get that treatment. And they will get it provided through the regional health service.”

The announcement of her appointment as Mental Health Champion was greeted with huge applause on social media. But some others voiced scepticism, including Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR); Koulla Yiasouma, the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY); and suicide prevention campaigner Philip McTaggart.

“There is a legitimate view in how can you work with a group and then criticise them? But I think it’s important to be a part of the change that you are helping to drive. I’ve been critical in the past year of certain policy decisions. I’ve been very vocal. I use my social media for that. I intend to continue to do that,” said Prof O’Neill. I also pointed out that her office can only make recommendations. It does not have statutory powers to order inquiries as is the case with the Police Ombudsman’s Office of Northern Ireland.

“You are right,” replied Prof O’Neill. “One of the discussions was should this be a mental health commissioner-type role? That is a very different role. That’s about looking at mental health services and equality of services. For me this is about policy development and making sure that we have the best possible treatments and interventions. We use the best academic evidence and we listen to people with lived experience.

“My role is about working with policy makers. I’m comfortable with my role. I wouldn’t have applied for it if I felt I had absolutely no power. I believe that this is a really good thing to do. I think there should be more academics working with government to create change.”

My final question to Prof O’Neill was about the decision to appoint her. Against unrelenting grim statistics about the mental health crisis and an increasing number of suicides, did she worry that the job created was all about the optics, that the Department of Health had to be seen to be doing something?

“I had been working with government departments for a long time. I was uncomfortable about accepting the position of interim Mental Health Champion because I hadn’t applied for it. But once I started working with them, I could see that change was happening. It wasn’t just optics. People would feel the difference on the ground with improved services, such as perinatal mental health provision. I also don’t have a relationship with any of the political parties. None of them have said what I can and can’t say.

“If I’m sitting on the strategic reform boards and in two years time, if this thing is not happening, because other government departments are not putting money into it, I’ll have to say something or do something. I’m obliged to do it. I couldn’t sleep in my bed if I didn’t do it.”

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