This is a guest blog from Jonathan Smyth, Head of Communications and Fundraising at Action Mental Health.

As an organisation, Action Mental Health has long campaigned for better mental health services in Northern Ireland. Alongside partners in the sector, a key part of our campaigning included calls to produce a fully costed and properly resourced mental health strategy that would deliver real change for people in Northern Ireland. We were the only region of the UK without such a strategy despite being the region with the most need, something borne out by the fact that we have the highest prevalence of mental health problems in the UK.

In June 2021 then, we very much welcomed the announcement by Northern Ireland’s Health Minister – Robin Swann, MLA, of Northern Ireland’s first ever Mental Health Strategy, a ten-year vision that outlines three key themes encompassing 35 actions, as well as recognising the need to invest £1.2bn over the life time of the strategy to deliver its recommendations.

In addition to the new strategy, we very much welcome OSR’s in-depth review of mental health statistics in Northern Ireland, which has confirmed that existing statistics do not meet current user needs and sets out expectations in this area to make real change.

Across the many discussions and interactions, we have had, and continue to have with other mental health campaigners and professionals, one of the key things we hear is frustration at the lack of robust data and statistics around mental health and mental health service delivery in Northern Ireland. Given the obvious pressures on the health budget due to Covid it is vital that precious investment is not wasted and unfocused due to incomplete or false data.

We hear regularly from professionals about the challenges they face in navigating Northern Ireland’s fragmented services, which are often entirely different from area to area, or maybe they are simply described differently depending on postcode.

We’re also aware of the impact this has on our clients and the confusion and frustration it causes as they have to re-tell their story to many different healthcare professionals.

With this differentiation in service delivery comes issues with data collection – there is very little standardisation of data, across what is such a relatively small area, both in terms of geography and population. How then do we plan for better services and better outcomes if we don’t know what we are comparing from area to area? As an organisation trying to develop innovative new projects it is frustrating that there is no easily accessible source of data to ensure our valuable resources are properly focused on client need.

The lack of robust statistics in such a complex area can also present challenges in the digital age when misinformation can be spread so easily. Being able to vigorously challenge potentially damaging or worrying claims with evidence based, factual information is vital to protect public confidence and support public health messaging.

Our anecdotal evidence is supported by the findings of the newly published OSR (Office for Statistics Regulation) review of Northern Ireland’s mental health statistics which found:

  • The scarcity of robust mental health data in Northern Ireland has hindered the development of statistics and led to significant data gaps.
  • The lack of regional standardisation and a fragmented technology infrastructure has led to poor data quality, with limited consistency or comparability across the region.
  • Users find it difficult to locate official statistics across a dispersed landscape. Data accessibility could be improved.

In many ways these issues will be a fundamental challenge to the successful delivery of the new Mental Health Strategy. We need timely and robust data to underpin everything we do.

As that famous old business consultancy cliché goes:

“What gets measured gets done”

We have a unique opportunity with the new strategy in Northern Ireland to change how we support those with mental health issues, and robust and reliable data that targets investment and ensures better outcomes must be our goal.

You can find out more about Action Mental Health’s work by visiting our website or follow us on Twitter.