I can’t remember the exact moment that I found out about the issues that face children with mental health difficulties. I don’t remember either when I first felt the rumblings of indignation. But now I am acutely aware of every single thing that affects children and, in particular, our most vulnerable children.
What I do not understand is that although each year the media highlighted the fact that children were being placed in Adult Psychiatric Units, nobody – including me – did a thing about it. I suppose we can all make excuses – we’re busy, we’re focused on other things, life gets in the way. But I feel incredibly emotional when I think about this situation and even more ashamed that I haven’t played my part in preventing this from happening. You see, I have no excuse! I have immersed myself over the last decade in mental health. I have assessed children who have suicidal thoughts and who engage in self-harm. The children we would have seen at Pieta House were the lucky ones… they were being heard and helped. But it never occurred to me to question what other services were available for children. They couldn’t all be coming to Pieta House – so where were they going?
As soon as I became a Senator, I promised I would be the voice of mental health, and the voices of children began roaring in my ear. I heard that 95 children had been admitted into Adult Psychiatric Units last year. I heard that there were over 2,000 children on a waiting list – children who had suicidal ideation, children who had eating disorders, and children who were engaging in self-harm. I began asking the questions about why this practice was allowed to continue. I then heard that there were reports, reviews, strategies written by very experienced people, who were trying to prevent our children from having to go through this. I was told that a document called Vision for Change had been created directing, advising and setting out the policies for changing the practice in many mental health areas, including children’s mental health services. Then the Government promised an additional €35 million a year to implement these changes. But nothing has changed.
I have been working with a young woman, Anita Finucane, who feels as passionate as I do about changing the present practices around mental health. At the beginning, Anita, who is a barrister, advised me to start by trying to change the law. She urged me to change legislation, to make it illegal for anyone to admit a child into an adult psychiatric unit. I wouldn’t listen! I said, no, that takes too long! Let’s make practical changes now. Naively, I thought I could change the world overnight. I spent the first few months trying to find out what was available for children, why they were being placed into inappropriate places. I thought that by having a conversation with different stakeholders I would miraculously come up with a solution. I learned the hard way that while many things need simple solutions, the biggest obstacle we face is poor communication.
So Anita and I decided that we needed a two prong attack on these issues. A legal response and a practical one – thus The 95 Project was born. Ninety-five represents the ninety-five children that were placed into Adult Psychiatric Units and Project means that this task ahead of us is a vision, a campaign, a war declared on the under-funded, ignored, and tragic reality of the mental health services for the children of our nation. We will start this project by introducing change into the Mental Health Act 2001 by making it illegal to place children into inappropriate services. Our next task is to reduce the waiting list – we can facilitate this by starting conversations between the public and private sectors. We also want to see the creation of regional PICUs (Psychiatric Intensive Care Units) so that if a child at 8pm on a Friday night is in distress, there will be a secure, safe place for them to go.
My hope is that I can highlight the issues that face our vulnerable children, while at the same time, help the HSE arrive at solutions. This will be through dialogue, patience and funding from the Government.