We believe Northern Ireland's ambitious new mental health strategy is an "important milestone" and recognises the critical role counsellors and psychotherapists have in supporting the nation.

Northern Ireland Minister of Health Robin Swann this week announced the publication of the Mental health strategy 2021 to 2031. The document sets out the strategic direction of mental health services in Northern Ireland for the next decade and calls on the Executive to ensure it's adequately funded. 

It includes plans to ensure psychological therapies, including counselling, are more widely available and commits to investing in developing the workforce of counsellors and psychotherapists in Northern Ireland.

We've been pleased to play an active role within the consultation that has led to the strategy, calling for this increased investment and recognition of counselling.

We were alarmed that earlier iterations of the strategy failed to mention counselling and we're glad this has been addressed following our representations.

We've been particularly grateful to work with many of our members, mental health partners, third sector counselling organisations, the Participation and Practice of Rights 123 GP campaigners, and the Counselling and Health Communication Team at the University of Ulster to form our various responses to the strategy, together with the Northern Ireland Counselling Forum. 

What the strategy includes

This is an important and ambitious strategy, which aims to provide much-needed reform and is complemented by a clear £1.2 billion funding plan to address the long-term underfunding of mental health services in Northern Ireland, although this investment is not yet secured.

We're pleased to see this funding plan includes an increased budget for psychological therapies.

The strategy recognises the significant impact of Covid 19 on the mental health of the nation and the likely increased levels of need over the coming years due to the impact of the pandemic. A 30% increase in referrals is expected to mental health services over the next three years.

It also recognises that even before the pandemic, access to mental health services was challenging and targets were regularly missed, with more than 1,800 people currently waiting over 13 weeks for psychological therapies.

A key element of the new strategy will be to embed psychological services into mainstream mental health services and ensure that psychological therapies, including counselling, will be available across all steps of care.

We're also pleased to see an important commitment to invest in workforce development of counsellors and psychotherapists.

Action 32, which commits to undertaking a comprehensive workforce review, says “Going forward, this means investing in areas of the health and social care workforce that have often not been included. Development and improvement of the mental health workforce must include the full range of allied health professionals, counsellors and therapists”.

Our response

Steve Mulligan, Our Four Nation’s Lead, said: "This is an important milestone for the mental health sector in Northern Ireland and we commend the Minister and the Department of Health in particular for recognising the core role of  the counselling workforce within the Ten Year strategy.

"Counselling in primary care was one of the key issues highlighted in the consultation and we welcome the strategy's commitment to providing greater access and choice. We're keen to continue to working with the Department to ensure effective implementation of the strategy.

"More than 1,600 BACP members across Northern Ireland provide life-changing counselling and psychotherapy support.

"With increased investment our members will be able to ensure that even more people get the urgent help they need.

"We call on the Executive to ensure that this much-needed investment is delivered, so we can develop a mental health system that works for everyone."

Read more about the Mental health strategy 2021 to 2031.