Data from the country's healthcare trusts shows a marked decrease in referrals from GPs across the country, but is this a positive sign?
A pattern that has emerged around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic has been the increase in referrals to mental health services. As the pressures of a new way of living have been felt by many of us, the need for professional help has sharply increased. In England for example, referrals have increased by around 19% since the start of the pandemic.
There are some countries that stand out as anomalies from this pattern though, one of which is Northern Ireland.
According to new data from the BBC's Shared Data Unit, referrals have dropped on average by 29% across Northern Ireland's five Health and Social Care (HSC) trusts.
The lowest reduction was seen in the Belfast Trust at 16%, while Northern Ireland's Southern Trust fell by over 53%. Overall, referrals fell from 5086 in February 2020 to 3631 in January 2021.
On the face of it, fewer referrals could be considered a positive outcome. However, unlike the sudden decline in referrals seen at the start of the pandemic – which can be explained by health services adapting how they administered care – this consistent decline in referrals is more concerning.
In an interview with the BBC, a Department of Health spokesperson explained this unusual trend as “an indication of people not seeking help, rather than not needing help,” suggesting a general reluctance to see their doctor about mental health concerns during the pandemic.
As a result, people are waiting longer before getting help, and presenting with more acute presentations that require more specialist care when they do, they added, which could result in a sudden spike in people receiving secondary care.
"It is expected that this will continue going forward, combined with an increase in referrals. Current modelling is indicating up to 32% increase in referrals to secondary care over the next three years compared to pre-Covid-19 figures."
Why is this specifically affecting Northern Ireland?
As previously mentioned, referral rates in other parts of the UK are increasing, so what is it about Northern Ireland that could be spurring this reduction?
One possible explanation is that the country's mental health services are severely underfunded, with reports of a thinly-stretched workforce emerging even before the pandemic hit.
Health Minister Robin Swann echoed this sentiment in July when publishing a new 10-year Mental Health Strategy for Northern Ireland:
“We hear of stories of patients who have to wait for very long periods in emergency departments under [Police Service of Northern Ireland] supervision as there are no beds available in mental health, and of patients on mattresses on the floor,” said Swann. “...stories of patients desperately seeking help without being able to receive the help they need.”
To combat the issue, Swann called for a £1.2 billion investment over the next 10 years to implement his plan and transform Northern Ireland's mental health services.
Written by Conor D'Andrade
News reporter for Talking Mental Health