Monday, December 31, 2012

Funds for suicide prevention diverted

Millions of euro ring-fenced by the Government to hire hundreds of staff to boost suicide prevention and mental health services this year was used to tackle cost overruns in other parts of the health services.

Under plans announced a year ago, €35 million was to be invested in modernising mental health services during 2012, allowing for the recruitment of about 414 staff and the expansion of services in the community. 

Earlier this month, however, just 17 out of the 414 mental health staff – who were to include dozens specialising in suicide prevention – had been hired.

The savings helped reduce the Health Service Executive’s overspend, although it still required an additional €360 million from the Government to help balance its books at the end of this year.

The spending delay comes at a time of rising demand for mental health services in the community and rising concern about suicide.

Minister of State with responsibility for mental health Kathleen Lynch has acknowledged delays in appointing staff but insisted she would seek to have the amount of money used to shore up the HSE’s finances at the end of this year taken from its allocation for next year and used as originally intended.

Appointments proceeding 

She said some 270 of the promised 414 posts had already been accepted and appointments were proceeding. Many of these staff were expected to start work in late December, meaning their salaries will form part of the 2013 budget.

Ms Lynch said the delay in candidates taking up posts had been due to various factors such as mapping exercises to determine where staff were needed; Garda clearance; and the checking of references.

“We’re dedicated to be fully delivering everything that we set out to and lots of new initiatives are in place for next year,” she said.

Internal HSE records obtained by this newspaper indicate some mental health teams in the State are under considerable strain due to gaps in staffing. 

The clinical director of services in the Louth-Meath area warned senior officials in recent months: “With the huge exodus of nurses who are retiring, coupled with the recruitment embargo, the community services of which we are so proud are being decimated.”

The planned developments that did not take place or that were implemented only in part during 2012 include:

* Hiring 34 professionals who would roll out a suicide crisis service across the State, which would have provided early intervention for people at risk of taking their lives;

* Training for nurses across 13 acute hospitals to support patients at risk of self-harm or suicide;

* The appointment of 192 medical, nursing and therapeutic staff to understaffed community mental health teams;

* The appointment of 150 childcare workers, therapists and medical staff to fill gaps in child and adolescent mental health teams.

Ms Lynch said significant sums were spent on important projects during 2012. For example, €5 million went towards the introduction of counselling in primary care settings and €3 million was provided to the National Office of Suicide Prevention for the implementation of various initiatives.