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Highland campaign group No More Lost Souls make plea for urgent improvements in mental health support

By Alan Hendry

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Steven Szyfelbain, of No More Lost Souls, says the Caithness mental health crisis 'reached breaking point' last year and the fallout is being seen now.
Steven Szyfelbain, of No More Lost Souls, says the Caithness mental health crisis 'reached breaking point' last year and the fallout is being seen now.

A Highland campaign group has warned that the need for better mental health provision locally is becoming "a humanitarian issue of the utmost importance".

Members of Caithness-based No More Lost Souls claim that nearly everyone in the county has been affected by the "suicide crisis" over the past 18 months and say they will keep pushing for stronger and more secure services.

Steven Szyfelbain, the group's chairman, insists action is needed urgently before the death toll rises further.

He was speaking after a Scottish charity predicted a "mental health surge" as referrals rise.

The Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) highlighted national figures showing 59 per cent fewer mental health referrals were made to services in the early months of the pandemic.

Statistics for March 2021 show referral rates returning to pre-Covid levels, and SAMH expects the figures to continue growing "as more people come into the system".

In NHS Highland, the number of mental health referrals rose from 438 in February 2020 to 500 in March 2021. Mental health referrals in NHS Highland had fallen as low as 145 in May last year.

The figure of 500 for March 2021 in NHS Highland followed on from 238 in December 2020, 259 in January 2021 and 297 in February 2021, indicating a steady upward trend.

Mr Szyfelbain founded No More Lost Souls last summer after a series of suicides in the county.

"Before the pandemic the facts and figures were more than a cause for concern," he said. "I'd now go as far as to say that last year was critical mass for the issue, it reached breaking point, and what we and the NHS are now seeing is the fallout from that crisis."

Members of No More Lost Souls understand that there have been 18 deaths by suicide in Caithness during the time of the pandemic.

Through the efforts of Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, the group recently took part in a meeting with NHS Highland officials and others.

"Though it was an excellent opportunity to highlight the issues and serious concerns that we have here in the north, there is still a great sense that there is more to be done and that those in the appropriate positions of authority should and must act now – before the death toll rises ever higher and the tragedy encompasses even more of the Highlands," Mr Szyfelbain said.

"It is no exaggeration to say that nearly everyone in Caithness has been affected by the suicide crisis which has engulfed the community in the last 18 months.

"We continue to campaign for stronger and more secure services here in the north, and have tentative plans with another local campaign group to stage protests in the near future to highlight the desperate need for more locally based mental health facilities for users and their families.

"It has become a humanitarian issue of the utmost importance to those fighting with their mental health in Caithness. Weeks, months, years, should never be acceptable when treating mental health – yet it has now become synonymous with a service that is overburdened, understaffed, overtaxed and no longer fit for purpose. And that's not just Caithness, it's nationwide."

SAMH chief executive Billy Watson said of the referral statistics: “The danger is that people will become more mentally unwell as they wait.

“All the evidence would suggest that they will wait longer, and they were already waiting probably too long in the first instance. So that has the potential to manifest itself as an increase in crisis.”

A spokesperson for NHS Highland said: "We have a range of mental health services and we always aim to ensure that we are responsive to people in need. Similar to health boards across the country, we have had to adapt how we deliver services throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. We continue to admit people to our hospitals with the most urgent need.

"We have been holding more appointments on Near Me due to safety measures that have been put in place due to the pandemic. However, face-to-face services are available in the community in Caithness.

"We recently met with a group of local people to discuss mental health services in Caithness. As was discussed at the meeting, we continue to actively attempt to recruit to posts including psychiatry, community and support posts. We are also working to improve access to crisis services.

"We strongly agree that no death by suicide is acceptable or inevitable and we continue to strive to improve our services and to work alongside local organisations in an attempt to ensure that people receive the help that they need at the time they need it.

"We are working on a number of developments for the future, including enhancing mental health support in both primary care and urgent care services. We are also working in collaboration with the community, partner organisations and mental health service colleagues in Caithness to ensure that we fully understand the local needs as we plan for the future.

"We have agreed to continue to meet with local people to work together to build services and communities that are well connected and responsive to the needs of their citizens."

* If you have been affected by the issues in this article, you can talk to the Samaritans free at any time on 116 123.

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