Barry Lenihan's report on the effects of the pandemic on Ireland’s mental health services for Today with Claire Byrne is chock-full of the sort of statistics that, when collected and delivered en masse, are pretty shocking. 

Here’s what Barry told Claire about what he called "a significant spike in demand" for various mental health bodies’ services: 

"Samaritans says its volunteers have listened for almost 73,000 hours since lockdown 1 last March, as thousands contacted its helpline; Aware recorded a 36% rise in calls in 2020; Alone notes an increase in a wide range of mental health impacts among older people, while the youth site, Spun Out, it received 5,000 texts a month for each of the last 6 months from people aged 16 to 34, with issues including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts; and Bodywhys, it’s the national group supporting people with eating disorders and it reports a 150% increase in people accessing its online support services in January and February this year, when compared to the two months last year." 

Almost 6,000 people nationwide are waiting over a year to see a psychologist – the majority of them are children. These waiting lists were bad before the pandemic, now they’re pushing an already-stretched service to breaking point.

This past year, Barry says, "six in ten people feel their mental health has suffered significantly during the pandemic". And he says that around 90% of people can be treated by their GP, without the need for referral to secondary services.

Barry spoke to Dr. Dara Hume, GP at the Drumalee Family Practice in Cavan town. She told him that she was seeing three to four new cases a week of people seeking mental health consultations in the past month alone: 

"I think the commonest age groups I’m seeing would be adolescents and 20s, I think are probably the commonest age group. But I’m also seeing quite a few health care workers as well. I would have quite a large cohort of healthcare workers, both in the public and the private sector, who are really struggling at the moment." 

Dr. Hume believes these healthcare workers are essentially reluctant to stop, for fear that they won’t be able to start again. And, she tells Barry, it’s clear to her that everyone’s mental health is under strain at the moment.

By way of illustration, let’s dip back into the numbers. Barry gave Claire more quite startling figures: 

"11,518 people across Ireland are waiting to see a public health psychologist. Almost 6,000 of those are waiting more than a year for an appointment from the HSE and the majority are children." 

At the mental health charity Jigsaw, which is funded by the HSE and provides services for young people in the 12-25 years old age group, the average waiting time to be seen in 2019 was 8 weeks – that jumped to 12 weeks in 2020. 

Delays like this lead to young people presenting in Emergency Departments because they can’t wait for weeks to be seen by a dedicated mental health service. But EDs aren’t equipped to deal with young people (or indeed adults) presenting with mental health issues.

Barry spoke to Jen Ronan, who’s had issues with mental health since she was a child. She’s had experience of going to the ED in 2013 when she felt suicidal. She told Barry that the Emergency Department was not the place she felt she should be: 

"I don’t belong in A&E. I have an emergency, but it’s not a physical emergency. I’m taking up a space that should be for a physical trauma. My crisis is mental, it’s a mental health crisis." 

Eventually Jen was seen by a crisis nurse, but she felt that the nurse was treating her very perfunctorily and didn’t really have much understanding of mental health issues. She was sent home with a referral to a day care centre and three months later, she got into that centre. Jen now volunteers with Haven Hub, a group that patrols Limerick’s rivers at nighttime. 

You can hear Barry’s full report for Today with Claire Byrne by going here

If you’ve been affected by mental health issues, The Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 113. You can find out about more mental health services by going to RTÉ's Helplines page here.