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Highland mental health 'crisis' is target of new taskforce as waiting lists spiral out of control

By Louise Glen

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Fiona MacAulay.
Fiona MacAulay.

NHS Highland has launched a new taskforce to combat waiting lists of up to 18 months for help with mental health issues.

With more than 200 young people on a waiting list for at least 12 months, and adults reporting waits of 18 months or more for treatment, the health board has decided urgent action is needed.

Demand for these services has been growing steadily since the country was plunged into lockdown a year ago, to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Figures released by the UK Statistics Authority show 214 young people sought support in December, compared to 34 in December 2019. In total, 689 people are waiting for mental health treatment and nearly a third have been waiting for more than a year.

Louise Bussell, interim chief officer at NHS Highland, said: “The Covid pandemic has been a particularly challenging and concerning one for adults and children.

Louise Bussell.
Louise Bussell.

“We have seen an upsurge in need which, when added to the limitations of providing face-to-face appointments over the last year, has led to a significant delay in children accessing our services.

“We have used technology where possible as well as urgent face-to-face care, but continue to have capacity difficulties within the service.

“Prior to and during Covid we had identified the need to improve access to services and provide a sustainable model of care.

“To support this work, a new child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and psychological therapies programme board was established within NHS Highland in January to lead this improvement work in relation to both areas.

“We have representatives from the Scottish Government at this forum and are working closely to reduce waiting times.”

In the 2021/22 budget, the Scottish Government has set aside £139 million for mental health services, supporting overall mental health spending of more than £1.1 billion.

Ms Bussell continued: “We welcome the government announcement of additional funding in this essential area of care and will ensure that the investment is used effectively as we fully appreciate the importance of supporting young people.”

Long-Covid sufferer Sarah MacDougall, from Inverness, said she was desperate for support with her mental health after surviving the illness, but getting help had proved almost impossible.

Sarah MacDougall.
Sarah MacDougall.

Mrs MacDougall, who is still recovering after spending two weeks in a coma in intensive care after contracting coronavirus almost a year ago, said: “I was very low and trying to make sense of what was happening to me.

“I tried to access mental health services but there was nothing available. Eventually I was referred through my work’s occupational health service.

“But waiting for the service would have been detrimental to me. Covid changed my life overnight, and I now suffer with post-traumatic stress.”

A mum, who does not want to be named, said she was given a leaflet by a doctor to contact bereavement charity Cruise, after being told there was a two-year wait for an appointment to discuss the loss of her child.

Fiona MacAulay, of counselling service Highland Trauma Services, said: “There has been a rise of 300 per cent of young people with eating disorders during the last year.

“Unless we speak with children and young people at the time their trauma is happening, then we will create an adult population with untreated trauma.

“NHS Highland should be looking for partners to work with them to support children and adults with their mental health.

“The NHS must look outside itself to support people or the case load will continue to rise – day by day – and that is building up huge psychological issues for people.”

Regional MSP Donald Cameron raised concerns that 214 young people have been waiting for more than a year for mental health treatment.

He said: “I want to see evidence that ministers in Holyrood recognise the gravity of this and outline how they will support health boards, charities and support organisations in tacking mental health waiting times and drive down these figures.

“Nothing is more important than supporting our young people, many of whom will be worrying about their education and their future prospects.

“We must do everything we can to ensure than no young person is overlooked and left feeling despondent or desperate.”

Read more on mental health concerns by clicking here.

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