New data show stark regional differences in access to mental health counselling services in Northern Ireland, with GP practices in some parts of the country not offering counselling at all.
Research by Northern Irish human rights charity Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) reveals that over 30% of GP practices cannot offer in-house counselling.
The charity has used its research to produce a map that shows the areas where people are unlikely to access the service.
There is a massive divide between territories as 89% of GPs in the Northern Trust offering in-house counselling compared with only 51% of the Southern Trust’s GPs.
On a smaller scale, every GP practice in the North-Eastern constituency of East Antrim offers in-house counselling, compared with a very low 40% in West Tyrone.
Sara Boyce, Mental Health Campaigner at PPR, says “it is vital” that GPs are correctly equipped to give patients the support they need.
"Counselling is one effective treatment but at this present time accessing counselling through your GP practice is a postcode lottery,” says Boyce.
“In some areas every GP practice offers this service but in others, less than half of GP practices can offer it. This cannot be fair or right.”
Charities and campaigners have long insisted that mental health services in Northern Ireland are underfunded, while reports show that the country has one of the highest rates of antidepressant prescriptions in the world.
Mental health issues in Northern Ireland are 25% more common than in England, yet the country spends just 5% of its total health budget on mental health every year.
The Minister for Health, Robin Swann, is planning to launch a 10-year Mental Health strategy to improve services.
PPR’s #123GP campaign wants the health minister to ensure that all GP practices have the resources to offer timely counselling for those who need it no matter where they live.
Campaigners want an overhaul to the system, which includes making sure that no one waits longer than two days for an urgent appointment, or 28 days for a routine one.
Northern Ireland's mental health champion, Professor Siobhan O'Neill, believes more needs to be done to meet the needs of those struggling with their mental health.
"What we need is a service that feels like there is quick accessible support for early intervention... that's what we want,” says O’Neill.
"It does need to feel it is very accessible. Right now we have a worrying statistic that only 40% of those people who have mental health problems can access the mental health support they need. That is just not acceptable."
Written by Megan Robinson
News reporter for Talking Mental Health