Improving mental health on the ground

east belfast mural2 Peter Cheney considers the challenges of mental illness in Belfast and the community work being done to tackle the problem.

Over the last five years, the economic crisis has added extra pressure on people living in inner city Belfast – where mental health problems were already more common than elsewhere. However, a wide range of services are available to help people struggling with mental illness and the voluntary and community sector is getting the message out about how people can improve their well-being.

Linda Armitage is Health Development Director with the East Belfast Community Development Agency (EBCDA), based on Templemore Avenue, and manages its community development and connections team. Financial worries have undoubtedly come to the fore as a cause of mental illness, she relates. A major increase in the number of people looking for help with benefits – either due to redundancy or low incomes – has been accompanied by an increase in the number of people seeking talking therapies.

“People are wanting help, which is good,” Armitage comments, “but I’m sure there are lots of people out there who don’t know how to get the help.” The EBCDA and other agencies therefore tries to get relevant information about the services out into the community e.g. giving out relevant leaflets and booklets at shopping centres and football matches.

The Belfast Strategic Partnership for Health and Well-being is highlighting five main messages that organisations can share about improving mental health:

• connect (with the people around you);

• be active;

• take notice (curiosity and self-awareness);

• keep learning; and

• give to others.

“There’s no cost in that apart from the time you want to give to yourself and look after yourself,” she explains. EBCDA works with GPs, pharmacists and community workers to put those messages across to the public. Pharmacists are particularly important contacts as they communicate with a large number of people every day.

People do not always need to go through their GP in order to get help. The East Belfast area may not have as many services as other parts of the city but their quality is very high. This includes counselling services and also others such as befriending and complimentary therapies.

east belfast mural1 Separately, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust runs a ‘community of interest’ for mental health – a forum whose members represent youth work providers, older people’s services and the relevant agencies. This takes a strategic view of the subject and informs people about new research and policy developments.

The concept of a ‘local mental health hub’ is one practical innovation that is taking shape in the city. There are sometimes long waiting lists for people referred from GPs to statutory mental health services. This hub brings all the relevant professionals “around the table” to direct people to the right service and also identify wider trends in local mental health.

The overall process should be speeded up and improved, helping people with mild to moderate mental health problems to get help more quickly. This structure, which is co-ordinated by the trust and involves voluntary and community organisations, has already been piloted with five GP practices in West Belfast. Armitage hopes that when the hubs are rolled out across the city, they will help people to get quicker access to support and that local people will feel the difference from this change of approach.

She is also keen that as many people as possible – including businesspeople – take up emotional well-being and self-help courses and that GPs refer people to them as well. Local people can be trained to run the courses. The Belfast trust’s ‘top tips for looking after yourself’ course can be run over a morning or afternoon and looks at topics such as sleep, diet, alcohol and smoking.

Mental health hubs will also need funding to ensure that they can direct people to a good range of services, whether in the area or somewhere else if a person wishes to find help more anonymously.

Community organisations, though, think that putting services out to tender could have a downside. She explains: “We are very concerned that the local, neighbourhood, on-the-ground knowledge will be missed if a big organisation comes in, wins the tender [and] doesn’t have that local knowledge.” Groups from across the city have raised this with the Assembly’s Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee.

It is clear from the conversation that there is no shortage of services available for people with mental health difficulties but many people have been surprised to find out how much support was available. Armitage emphasises that making sure people know that there is help has to be a constant priority.

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