Children’s mental health system on its knees in NI, commissioner warns

Northern Ireland’s powersharing crisis has left young people’s mental health services on their knees, the Children’s Commissioner has warned.

Koulla Yiasouma highlighted that almost one of four of the region’s children and young people are now impacted by “significant mental health issues” as she expressed concern their needs are not being properly addressed due to a lack of government action.

Mrs Yiasouma, who began her second four-year term in office at the weekend, also cautioned that not enough was being done to tackle spiralling child poverty rates.

She was initially appointed by Stormont’s first and deputy first ministers in 2015 but her reappointment was made by Secretary of State Karen Bradley in the absence of a functioning devolved administration.

“I am just gutted we are here,” she said of the political impasse.

“I am gutted for our kids. I don’t want another four years of this, I want to be a commissioner who can advise our government on the best way forward for the children of Northern Ireland and I want to be working in partnership with ministers, with the executive and Stormont, and I am gutted that I have not been able to do that bit of my job for two years.”

NI Children's Commissioner
Koulla Yiasouma said there was need to focus on issues that were not orange or green (PA)

As Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Mrs Yiasouma’s role is to promote and safeguard the rights and interests of the youngest generation.

She said the collapse of Stormont means policy decisions on investing and improving mental health services were not being taken. She also pointed to a lack of data on how current services are working.

“I know the couple of years I had as Children’s Commissioner when we had our Assembly going at least it meant we could do things,” she told the Press Association.

“We were meeting with ministers in education and ministers in health. If we still had a minister for health and we had the health committee, our children’s mental health would be in a very different place right now, services for our children’s health would be in a very different place right now.

“Because the commitment was tangible – the commitment from the minister and the commitment from the committee was tangible and we would have moved forward and here we sit two years later with our children’s mental health system on its knees.”

Civil servants are currently in charge of running public services in Northern Ireland but the lack of elected ministers limits their ability to pursue new policy initiatives.

Mrs Yiasouma said civil servants were doing their best but the practical impact of the deadlock meant no-one was taking the tough decisions to stop services proved to be ineffective, and reinvest and embrace new approaches.

“The estimates are one in four, one in five, of our children have significant mental health issues in Northern Ireland,” she said.

“That’s higher than anywhere else on these islands because of our particular circumstances. My worry is the lack of investment and that is just going to get worse and worse and worse as different things challenge our children.

“Education policies need to be improved, relationship and sexuality education needs to be improved, stronger guidance coming from the department to schools may be able to tackle some of the issues around LGBT young people feeling undervalued – they experience higher levels of bullying than other children, so therefore their mental health suffers.

“There’s lots of things we need an Assembly, a minister and government to be able to do.”

Mrs Yiasouma said the political vacuum was also hindering efforts to address child poverty.

“What we know from the latest set of welfare reforms is that child poverty is going to increase much more than any other area,” she said.

“The population who is most in poverty are our families – ie our children – and we have no local initiatives to be able to improve child poverty, to eradicate child poverty.

“If a child lives in poverty we know they are likely to have less years of life, less years of good health, they are going to do worse in education and they are going to have poorer mental health.

“Northern Ireland is so small, we should have services and strategies and polices in place to address child poverty and we haven’t got those because we haven’t got an executive to be able to make the big, brave, bold decisions around addressing child poverty.”

The commissioner said she did not blame the politicians for the crisis, but she insisted there was a need for more focus on issues that were not wholly linked to traditional “orange and green” politics.

“I have yet to meet a politician who says they don’t care about this, so I don’t blame the politicians,” she said.

“The politicians are doing what they told their electorate they would do. This is part of us growing up into a democratic society. Northern Ireland needs to be more than green and orange, because that’s what our children are telling us.

“They are telling me that’s what they want.”