I am grateful to the Opposition for bringing forward tonight’s motion, and it is almost an annual debate. It does no harm for us as politicians to highlight the mental health problems that people have, and it is an individual issue for people. Each one of us has at some stage had mental health problems, whether we were aware of it or not. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and I have contributed to similar debates each year. My first Dáil speech was on the topic of suicide, so I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the issue again.
A Vision for Change was published in 2006 so we should see how we have progressed since. There have been six reports on the strategy, with the first highlighting that nothing had been done since the publication of the strategy. The Government decided to ring-fence €35 million per annum but that was not spent in the first couple of years, although in the past couple of years we have made much more of a commitment, which I welcome. I understand an increased number of staff are on board and it is important that such staff are available.
We should also consider how to change the system. There was an institution-type system in place for hundreds of years but we are moving to a community-based system. That will not happen overnight, no matter how strong the will of the Government or the people. It is difficult to change from being completely institutional to having more of a community base. There is a need for institutional care as well. I was involved in a case where I came across a young man who jumped from a bridge. He got out of an institution and tried to take his own life that day. Two of us were there and we tried to hold him so as to prevent him from going back into the water after we pulled him out. Institutional care rather than community was required in that case. We must be mindful that we cannot put all our eggs into one basket on the community side, as we also need the institutional side.
I will discuss two other issues in my limited time where I have seen major improvements. The first relates to awareness, and it is great to have the debate tonight because it increases the awareness of both mental health and suicide, which are individual issues. I took part in a safeTALK in the Oireachtas and I organised one in my community. I know if I did it again now, I would get a much better response because at the time I tried to organise it through GAA, soccer and rugby clubs. There was very little positive response at the time, and I got a negative response from one club secretary who told me the club did not have that “issue”. That indicates how ignorant society can be.
Awareness also comes from other organisations, and I can highlight Pieta House in this regard. The first year I was elected I went on the walk it organises and I decided to bring the idea back to Naas. There were 800 people at the first walk and this year we had almost 5,000 people attending. That is itself a message and creates awareness of the issue of suicide.
“It’s OK not to feel OK” is a good buzz phrase from the sporting community. A friend telephoned me six weeks ago about a friend of hers who was suicidal. She was worried that if she brought him to the hospital he might be let go. The hospital, however, had a psychiatric unit attached to it, which was able to respond quickly. The fear was that the person would leave without having been examined or treated and something might have happened later. My friend told me that six years ago her brother had been in a similar state, had not been cared for or examined and a year later took his own life. We have made some positive changes. We are moving on this issue and that takes time but we have a long way to go. It is not possible to change an institutional system to a community-based one overnight. We have to give ourselves time and have a path. I am delighted that within the HSE there is a pathway for what we are trying to do. We need to keep going on the right road.