Spokesperson on Children Robert Troy has raised the vacant position of director of the HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention with Minister Kathleen Lynch
Deputy Robert Troy: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue. I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for coming in to hear what I have to say and to give her opinion on it.
The lack of priority afforded to the filling of the post of director of the national office of suicide prevention, NOSP, is indicative of the priority the Government is giving this most serious issue of suicide prevention and mental health. In the past 12 months, two directors have departed the office. Geoff Day quit the post expressing concern about the lack of resources and staffing with a budget of €7 million this year and Dr. Susan O'Keeffe, appointed to the role in June, lasted only three months before being poached by the Department of Health. The HSE said the vacancy would be filled by October but the acting director of the office, Martin Rogan, said this would be more likely to happen in mid-November. Once again, it will be filled through an internal process. Can we have confidence this process will ensure the best candidate is recruited? Can we be confident the Department of Health will not seek to poach the new director, as happened previously? It is regrettable that, in the past year, three different directors had to be appointed and there were periods during which nobody was in the post, thus highlighting a lack of leadership and direction in this critical office.
Noel Smith, founder of suicide charity, the 3ts, said, the vacuum at the head of the NOSP was telling about the Government's attitude to suicide. This is happening at a time, unfortunately, the number of people dying by suicide is increasing. Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate among 14 to 24 year olds in the EU and the third highest among young men aged between 15 and 19 while the preliminary figures indicate that 525 people died by suicide last year. I am conscious that only this week a leading psychologist, Dr. Tony Bates, suggested that the intense focus in society on suicide is conditioning some people into thinking that it is a viable option in their options. He talked about focusing on strengthening the mental health of young people rather than emphasising the issue of suicide.
Will the Minister of State confirm that she has devolved responsibility from the senior Minister for mental health? Why does the €35 million which was redirected from the health budget to community mental health services remain largely unspent? If this remains unspent, the cut to mental health funding will be 8%, not 1%. I understand recruitment for a number of positions is ongoing but no one will be appointed prior to 10 December and, therefore, none of the €35 million will be spent. This signals the lack of commitment by the Government to mental health. Following one full year of promising to spend €35 million on community mental health services, it remains unspent.
When will the post of director of the national office of suicide prevention will be filled? Is the Minister of State confident adequate resources will be in place to ensure the new director will be able to do his or her job? Is she happy the internal recruitment will deliver the best person for the job and there will not be a repeat of the Department poaching the appointee? Will any of the €35 million budget be spent this year? If so, how much? Will any of this money be used to plug the large deficit in the general health budget? As Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, will she give a clear assurance that the Government's commitment to provide €35 million per annum for community mental health services will be honoured?
I raise this because I have a deep interest in this issue. I am a founder member of the North Westmeath Suicide Prevention Group and I am a member of the cross-party committee on mental health. I acknowledge the Minister of State has a deep commitment to this issue and I hope she will alleviate some of the concerns and fear I have raised.
Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Kathleen Lynch): I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. It is one I never tire of talking about and it is one in which I have a deep interest. I am glad he has as well. The national office for suicide prevention, NOSP, was established by the HSE in 2005 to implement Reach Out, our national strategy for action on suicide prevention. The national office plays a key role in developing and supporting initiatives related to suicide prevention. Since the launch of Reach Out and the establishment of the office, a significant volume of cross-sectoral work has been undertaken, which has resulted in considerable advances in suicide prevention. Initiatives include the ASIST and Safetalk training programmes; the tough economic times programme; mental health awareness campaigns; supporting voluntary organisations in their work on suicide prevention; and the piloting of a system of suicide crisis assessment nurses working with accident and emergency departments and general practitioners, GPs, which will be rolled out nationally this year. I will explain this to the Deputy, if needs be, when he asks his supplementary questions.
The first director of the national office retired in September 2011 and the position was immediately filled on an acting basis pending the running of an internal competition for the permanent post. The new appointee elected from that competition took up the post in June. Everybody was of the opinion that not alone was the acting director an excellent person, but the person appointed was equally eminently qualified. Unfortunately for the office, that person was soon after selected to play a key role on a new national project and was seconded to the Department of Health in that context on 10 September.
Since that date, the assistant national director for mental health, Mr Martin Rogan, assumed responsibility for the director's duties. During this time the office has continued to function very effectively. It hosted its major national suicide prevention forum at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham on 10 September, with over 100 participants from the statutory and voluntary sector. It has also published a detailed annual report for 2011, which was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas last week. On 27 September, expressions of interest were again sought from general manager level grades and above within the HSE for the permanent position of director of national office for suicide prevention. The closing date for receipt of applications is 10 October and the interview process will be held on 22 October.
Mental health and, in particular, suicide prevention are priorities for the Government. In this regard a special allocation of €35 million for mental health was announced in budget 2012 in line with the programme for Government commitments. Funding from this special allocation will be used primarily to further strengthen community mental health teams in both adult and children's mental health services and to initiate the provision of psychological and counselling services in primary care, specifically for people with mental health problems. From this allocation, an additional €3 million has been made available to the national office for suicide prevention to implement prioritised suicide prevention initiatives, including GP training in suicide prevention, improving access to services for those who self harm, interconnecting existing suicide prevention helplines and expanding the national mental health awareness media campaign to target men aged 35 and over. If the Deputy has any additional questions, I have no difficulty in answering them.
Deputy Robert Troy: The Minister of State has outlined the timeframe and I welcome the fact that interviews will be held. I ask the Minister of State to answer a number of points I raised about the level of confidence that the best candidate will be found in the internal process and whether there will be further changes. While there has been someone acting or in the position for the past 12 months, there has been an inconsistency. Chopping and changing the person at the top of any organisation is not good. No one is casting aspersions on the ability of Mr. Martin Rogan but we have had a lack of consistency over the past 12 months in an important national office. A previous director, Mr. Geoff Day, quit and cited concerns about the lack of resources. Is the Minister of State confident adequate resources will be made available to the successful candidate to ensure the office does its job well? This is a serious problem in our country.
How much of the €35 million, to which the Minister of State referred, has been spent? How many additional people have been hired to further strengthen community mental health teams in both adults and children's mental health services and to initiate the provision of psychological and counselling services in primary care? I made a valid point about the 10 December target. Are people being recruited to start on 10 December? Will the €35 million be available next year and will the €35 million for 2013 also be spent? That will amount to €70 million next year.
Deputy Kathleen Lynch: I hope I remember the Deputy's questions because I cannot find my pen. On the question of whether the internal process will give us the best candidate, I can only judge the history of the people we have recruited. My advice is that the first and the second director were excellent candidates and eminently suitable. I assume the same will be true of this process.
It is pointless giving me €35 million if I cannot recruit. A breach in the embargo was far more important than the sum of €35 million. The 414 additional posts is the key point and these will be in place. They are being recruited as we speak. It may be someone from abroad and there must be checks with the Garda Síochána. Professional credentials and other matters must be taken into account. It is vitally important. The posts will give us a fully fleshed out and robust community mental health team and a psychological service. That is important to me. It will take place on 10 December and it should have been earlier but that is the date because of the checks and balances that had to take place. Is instability a bad thing in an office as vital as the National Office for Suicide Prevention? Of course it is. I have asked the national office to pare back to the bone the advertising and recruiting process because these matters can sometimes drag on. I hope the new director, whether male or female, will bring the stability we need in the office.