We’re supporting a campaign to improve access to counselling in Northern Ireland which has received strong cross-party support.

BACP has joined political parties and civil society organisations calling on Robin Swann, the Minister for Health, to fix the 10-year Mental Health Strategy[1], so it includes a firm commitment to provide timely access to counselling for all who need it.

All of the main political parties (with the exception of the UUP) and dozens of civil society organisations have signed up to a Consensus on Counselling Statement, developed by the 123GP campaign. See opposite for the full text of the statement and list of endorsees.

Other signatories include DUP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, SDLP, the Green Party and People Before Profit, as well as major counselling bodies and organisations; mental health and suicide awareness and prevention charities; trade union and student union bodies; and women’s, youth and community sector organisations.

Access to counselling

The Consensus Statement follows the publication in February of an interactive map by the 123GP campaign, which highlighted the postcode lottery that exists in relation to access to counselling through GP practices[2].

Campaigners have also highlighted the lengthy waiting times and the inadequate resourcing of counselling, leading to its de facto rationing as a mental health treatment option available to GPs.

The Consensus Statement calls on the Minister for Health to ensure the Mental Health Strategy includes commitments to make counselling of sufficient quality and duration available to all, with waits of no longer than 28 days.

It acknowledges that the draft Mental Health Strategy sets out plans to expand the roll out of Multi-Disciplinary Teams, to include mental health workers, across all of the GP Federations. 

However, it notes these longer-term plans, which are entirely funding dependent, should not be used by the Department of Health as an ‘excuse’ to ignore the serious inequalities in counselling provision in the immediate and short-term future.

Qualified counsellors

BACP represents 1,600 counsellors in Northern Ireland, and Steve Mulligan, our Four Nations Lead, highlighted the fact that there is no shortage of qualified counsellors available to work.

Steve said: “There is a ready-made, under deployed workforce willing and able to support even more people. Investment needs to be in place to ensure equal access to high quality support everywhere, ending the postcode lottery.”

Steve has written a blog about our support for the campaign.

Karen McGuigan, founder member of STEPS in Draperstown and a 123GP activist said: “This Mental Health Strategy comes at a time of realisation that the impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of our entire society will be serious and far-reaching.

“It is vital therefore, as the work of re-building our health services begins, that our GP practices, the first port of call for people struggling with their mental health, are fully equipped with all the necessary treatment options to be able to respond appropriately to the increased demand.

“We know that getting the right help at the right time can make a massive difference. Timely access to counselling is therefore vital. The solutions are there and have widespread political and community support. The Minister must take this opportunity to include them in the Mental Health Strategy.”

The consultation on the draft Mental Health Strategy ends today (March 26) and the final strategy is due to be published in July. We've been grateful to work with many BACP members, mental health partners and third sector counselling organisations across Northern Ireland to formulate our joint response to the strategy with the Northern Ireland Counselling Forum.

[1] Department of Health (2021) Mental Health Strategy 2021-2031 Consultation Draft.

[2] FOI Data Reveals a Post-Code Lottery When It Comes to Counselling Through GP Practices https://bit.ly/2P1j1Wo.