The percentage of the overall health budget allocated to mental health services has fallen by 1% despite growing demand for such services at every level, according to the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA).

Speaking at the PNA's conference which is taking place online, General Secretary Peter Hughes described the reduction as "outrageous", saying it highlighted the lack of understanding among politicians of the inadequacy of current services, and the mounting demand for services.

He said the health budget was now €20 billion, including the additional €4 billion allocated for 2021.

Mr Hughes said: "Of this, mental health has a budget allocation of €1 billion which now means that the mental health budget has been reduced from just over 6% to 5%.

"And it comes despite Sláintecare recommending that 10% of the health budget should be allocated to mental health, which is still below international recommendations."

He told delegates: "It is incomprehensible and a retrograde step especially when it comes just four months after the launch of the latest ten-year Government strategy 'Sharing the Vision'." 

Mr Hughes claimed 'Sharing the Vision' failed to allocated specific resources to implement its recommendations, adding: "Once again, it appears we are in danger of again getting promises rather that firm commitment to mental health services reform."

He also told delegates that up to 200 extra nurses would be needed when the new 170-bed National Forensic Mental Health Service in Portrane, in north county Dublin - due to be completed next month - opens fully next year.

He said the PNA would be insisting that all proceeds from the sale of the site of current Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum would be ring-fenced for investment in the wider mental health services.

Meanwhile, Mental Health Reform, which represents mental health organisations, has warned an Oireachtas sub-committee that there will be a severe cost in the "weeks, months and years ahead" due to the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on mental health services. 

Today was the first sitting of the sub-committee on Mental Health, chaired by Senator Frances Black. It aims to investigate issues around mental health services.

The committee was told by Mental Health Reform that there has been significant increases in social isolation and loneliness.

Public health restrictions have had a profound effect on people's mental health, the sub-committee heard, putting further pressure on a system that is already understaffed.

Ray Burke, their advocacy officer, said that a survey of its member organisations in April saw that 76% of them have had to withdraw their mental health services due to the pandemic.

This is despite a significant increase in demand. Jigsaw, the national centre for youth mental health, saw a 50% increase in demand for their services, he said. 

In her opening statement, Mental Health Reform CEO Fiona Coyle, said the HSE has seen traffic to its mental health website increase by 490% to more than 800,000 visits between March and July of this year.

It has also seen more than two thousand children are waiting for an appointment with CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services] 

Fiona Coyle told Sinn Féin TD Mark Ward that staffing within CAMHS is roughly 40% below what it should be. 

In a statement, the HSE confirmed that as of end of October there were 2,229 on the waiting list for an initial appointment with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services nationally. 

However it said that in October 2020, 94% of urgent referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Teams were responded to within three working days.

"Waiting lists vary according to Community Healthcare Organisation where, although some areas have relatively short waiting lists, regrettably waiting times are longer in other counties.

"Severity of the symptoms reported affects waiting times where waiting times for those with high-risk presentations are shorter," the statement read.

The HSE also confirmed that its mental health websit: had seen a strong increase in traffic, but looked to give context to a figure, quoted to the Oireachtas Committe of a "490% increase in traffic in March."

The HSE while the website saw this increase in March when compared to the month before, "this was due to a significant decrease in traffic in February following changes we made to our cookie policy. These changes were reverted in March, meaning that traffic volumes returned to normal."

The HSE said it received 690,000 visits between March and July, up from 352,000 during the same period in 2019, an increase of 96%.

Additional reporting: Tommy Meskill, Laura Fletcher