Theannouncement of Budget 2017 saw speech after speech given about each little increase in spending and decrease in taxation. Mental health reform was not the subject of a single speech.
Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe announced an increase of €497 million to the health budget. This brings the total departmental budget to €14.6 billion.
The Union of Students in Ireland and Mental Health Reform made a joint plea to the Government before the budget was announced to set aside €37.5 million for mental health services.
This is the figure needed to implement reforms outlined in A Vision for Change, a report detailing a new model for mental health services in Ireland.
Surely €37.5 million should not be hard to come by when the department’s budget has been increased by €497 million. Yet no mention of mental health funding was made.
The only conclusion to draw is that mental health remains a low priority for this Government, if it is even considered a priority at all.
This attitude is mildly baffling. Leaving aside the obvious moral reasons, a refusal to adequately support mental health services in this country is bad politics.
Has the Government forgotten the protests outside Leinster House last spring? Is it in unaware of the need to win young voters if it is to survive the next election?
Perhaps the only reason promises for an increase in mental health funding were made in the past was because Leo Varadker was Minister for Health. With Fine Gael’s heir apparent now hidden safely away in Social Protection, any desire to look like they are improving has fled.
After all, a 30 year old is now in charge of the Department of Health. However intelligent or capable Minister Simon Harris may prove to be, putting someone so inexperienced in charge hardly makes it seem as though health reform is a priority.
Harris did reverse the decision that caused the student protests in the first place. Before his intervention, €12 million of the €35 million mental health budget was to be diverted into other areas.
Yet even the full €35 million leaves gaps in services. A 48 per cent shortage in child and adolescent mental health service staff is not faintly acceptable.
The rate of suicides in this country is higher than the rate of road deaths. According to the Central Statistics Office there were 451 reported suicides in 2015.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged between fifteen and thirty four. Surely this problem is serious enough to be worth allocating 7.5 per cent of the budget increase provided by Budget 2017.
The Republic may not be fiscally strong yet, but the worst days of recession are long behind us. The election too is in the past, meaning there is no strong political reason to avoid rocking the boat.
The time for action must be now. The longer the Government refuses to commit to mental health reform, the more lives we are in danger of losing.