‘Significant and fundamental’ gaps in official mental health data

There is no accurate regional picture of mental health in Northern Ireland, the UK’s statistics regulator has said.

“Significant issues hindering the development of statistics” identified by the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) risk undermining a newly published 10-year strategy geared at setting the future direction of mental health services in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has the highest prevalence of mental ill-health across the UK, with many services operating at capacity even prior to the pandemic. An expected spike in demand post-pandemic prompted the publishing of a Mental Health Action Plan in May 2020, followed by the new Mental Health Strategy (2021-2031). However, funding has yet to be secured for almost all of the over £1.2 billion needed over the strategies lifetime.

Tasked with exploring the public value of mental health statistics in the United Kingdom, the OSR’s focus on Northern Ireland found that mental health statistics in Northern Ireland are currently not fully serving the public good and enabling statistics users.

As a result, the OSR says that a wide range of individuals and organisations are not having their analytical needs fully met.

Included in the findings is a scarcity of robust mental health data in Northern Ireland, leading to “significant and fundamental” data gaps. The OSR highlights that it is difficult to evaluate the delivery of mental health services and understand the outcomes for individuals because current statistics “cannot tell us how many people are accessing mental health services in Northern Ireland and whether their needs are being met”.

The OSR also highlights that the absence of official statistics has meant that academic research and studies are having to fill some of the gaps.

Strikingly, the report says that a practice of siloed mental health data collection by each of Northern Ireland’s five health and social care trusts has led to poor data comparability and therefore, there is no accurate regional picture of mental health in Northern Ireland.

Subsequently, there is no single point of access to official statistics on mental health, meaning that users find in difficult to locate official statistics and data “across a dispersed landscape”.

The OSR has recommended that the Department of Health builds upon the report’s findings to improve the availability of official data on mental health through the Mental Health Strategy 2021–2031.

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