Real-life stories of how counselling has changed lives in Northern Ireland was at the heart of the launch of a new research report.

BACP joined service users, charities and GPs at Stormont for the unveiling of Participation and the Practice of Rights’ (PPR) #123GP campaign report ‘Counselling – a vital tool in equipping GPs with mental health expertise’.

Steve Mulligan, BACP’s Four Nations policy and engagement lead, was at the Northern Ireland assembly this week with a cross-section of stakeholders.

"No matter what measure is used, Northern Ireland has the poorest mental health outcomes in the UK,” Steve said.

“We know that half a million people in Northern Ireland are suffering from untreated trauma. It also has an underutilised counselling workforce who could help those in psychological distress, if resources existed to help tackle need.

“Going forward, BACP intends to continue to work with PPR and others to fight for improved and fair access to counselling across Northern Ireland.”

Collective voice

The #123GP research found only two-thirds of GP practices provide access to counselling in their practice and that a quarter of patients wait four months or more for an initial appointment with a counsellor in their GP practice.

One counselling service user said: “It is very sad that there are so many GP practices which don’t offer talking therapies. It’s even more sad that in Northern Ireland we don’t have a specific mental health training course for GPs.

“It’s essential that people with lived experience tell their stories and find a way to act in solidarity. We need a collective voice if we are going to make a change to the situation.”

Another counselling service user added: “I was very pleased with my treatment from my GP. Initially I found it difficult to open up to my GP about how I was really feeling.

“I think every GP practice should have a counsellor based in the practice. It’s more intimate if it is provided in this familiar setting.”

Bobby Carlin, a BACP member and counselling services manager in the Ballymena area, said having a counselling service based in the GP practice made it more accessible to people.

“Lots of clients would never have thought about counselling as an option if it wasn’t offered by their GP but also based within the GP practice,” he said. “This is a vital service which should be expanded as a model of best practice.”

Postcode lottery

Christine Rocks, who lost her daughter Samantha to suicide 12 years ago, said: “Access to counselling through your GP practice is a vital treatment option for people with mental health problems or for those battling suicidal thoughts.

“But getting to see a counsellor is a postcode lottery. It totally depends on where you live. Even when your practice has a counsellor we know that people wait for up to seven months to be seen.

“The awful reality is that some people will be dead before they get the help they need. The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) needs to at least double the amount of money it is putting into GP practice-based counselling and do it now.”