Sunday, 12 February 2017

You Get What You Vote For.

Ah it’s election time again and for the first time in a long time I find myself politically homeless and faced with the option of not voting, destroying my vote or voting tactically, which at this minute in time I believe to be the better option. The upside to this election is that I have more time to forensically examine the endless election statements and literature which so far consist of little more than the same old lines we’ve heard before.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe the Stormont regime is legitimate or the adopted child of Westminster I don’t believe anyone in their right mind could say that the current regime at Stormont is working for anyone, well, outside of a select few. So, irrespective of who is elected to power we must bring to bear the only power that has ever proven effective and that being people power.  But the question is how do we do this?

The sad fact is that in between one election and the next those in office can, and have been seen to get away with anything they want. I can’t think of any other job in the world that you can promise the earth in your interview (the election process) and then remain in post despite not doing what you said you would do. There is a power differential which is once people are elected they have a ‘mandate’ which would seem to allow some to dictate the terms of their employment.

Unfortunately, tribal voting because of the contested position of the North will continue to put parties which are diametrically opposed to each other in power, in a mandatory coalition. And what makes it worse is that when it comes to certain votes such as ‘brexit’ parties like the DUP will demonstrate their ‘British’ credentials by voting against the best interests of the people here. Considering that the majority of people here voted to remain it will be interesting to see how those who supported the leave campaign will justify their positions to the electorate and how they will represent the wishes of the people here when they campaigned and voted against them.

All this leaves the people here in the North in a constant state of limbo, with the British state protecting its own interests and not being entirely honest or taking responsibility for its role during the troubles. At present, there is a lot of emphasis on the need to deal with the period defined as the ‘troubles’. Yet the impact that this period has had and is set to have on our younger generations cannot be understated. The fact is, the legacy of the troubles goes beyond those who lost their lives, who were wounded or injured both physically or emotionally and the impact on their families and the wider community at that time.

In a report published by the Victims and Survivors Service in 2015 levels of mental illness identified in other post-conflict zones have been lower than in the north. This suggests additional issues may be affecting the rates in the north of Ireland. The report states; “that given the high prevalence and economic impact of mental health problems, it is important to understand other factors and how they interact with conflict exposure to effect mental health”.

One of the most shocking statistics that we have seen over the past few years is that more people have died through suicide since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 than through the course of the Troubles. The fact that in less than 20 years more people lost their lives to suicide than through 30 years of conflict should have the politicians here doing everything they can to address the issues at the root of the problem. It is obvious there is no panacea that will immediately remedy every societal ill, but we must start somewhere.

In 2016 figures published by the Detail showed that 318 suicides were registered in the north of Ireland during 2015 which is an approximate 6 deaths per week. This figure was an increase of 19% on 2014 figures. From this figure 245 were male and aged between 15-34. These figures would equate to a plane crash each year, now imagine the outcry if every year it was announced that a plane cash resulting in major loss of life could have been avoided.

Now that’s not to say that there is nothing being done, but I would argue there is more needing done.

The Northern Ireland Protect Life Suicide Prevention Strategy was launched in 2006. Figures released in 2016 showed that over £50million had been allocated to suicide prevention since the beginning of the strategy. So, whilst there is no disputing the amount of money being spent on suicide prevention until the root causes of the problem are addressed these efforts will not prove as effective as they should be. However £50million over 10 years for suicide prevention pales into insignificance when you think that through the Stormont Renewable Heating Scheme the cost to the public could end up at £500 million over 20 years.

There are a range of factors that need to be addressed to bring the suicide rate down, indeed I would go as far as to say our target should be zero lives lost to suicide.

Key issues for our city include unemployment and poverty and their impact. In a paper on Social determinants of mental health published by the World Health Organization in conjunction with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation it states ‘adult mental disorders have impacts beyond the individuals concerned: they also influence children, partners and wider family, communities, economic development, and subsequent generations.

Whilst no study has proven that unemployment causes suicide, many studies indicate a strong association between unemployment, poor mental health and suicide. The paper on Social determinants of mental health states that a review of literature on common mental disorders and poverty in low and middle-income countries found that of the 115 studies reviewed over 70% reported positive associations between a variety of poverty measures and common mental disorders.

In one of my first blogs published in Jan 2014 I outlined how former Health Minister Edwin Poots in 2012 said ‘studies indicated that a 1% increase in unemployment was met with a corresponding 0.79% increase in suicide’ and that ‘The executive is facing up the challenge of reducing suicide rates.’

5 years down the line we have increased poverty, increased unemployment and sadly an increased suicide rate and beyond soundbites for electioneering Stormont has delivered very little.

This is where we as the people need to put it up to the politicians. To begin to address this we must demand that a coherent mental health strategy in conjunction with an anti-poverty strategy is put in place.

As the assembly prior to that elected in the 2016 election failed to produce an anti-poverty strategy can we assume that eradicating poverty was low on their priority list? And if they failed to bring forward a poverty strategy, then can we ask are they serious about addressing the associated impact of poverty on mental health? But then with the last assembly failing to publish their budget I doubt that things will be much better this time round either.

Despite this we need to seize every opportunity to highlight to those in Stormont the things they need to prioritise and a key issue for me in deciding who I will vote for, if I vote, is mental health.

Strategy to deal with mental health:

We need to ensure that adequate funding is provided for mental health services for both adults and children. With the effects of the troubles set to roll over into the next few generations, and not only the impact of the troubles but the impact of one generation’s mental health on another.

We need further awareness raised within schools and educational settings and to ensure adequate training is given to school staff tasked with promoting positive mental health. We need to instill in children that it’s ok not to feel ok, and that it is ok to ask for help. As part of this I would like to see training such as Mental Health First Aid and ASIST become part of the school curriculum. This will help people identify and support those in crisis and help break down the stigma that surrounds mental health.

We need more focus on perinatal care. Having suffered severe post-natal depression myself I know firsthand of the lack of support available within the community. Within this we need to ensure new and young fathers are supported and educated also.

And finally, that the community structure is inclusive of resources to improve the lives of those suffering long-term mental health problems, both young and old. Including the impact of social isolation.

To ensure a holistic approach to mental health is provided we cannot overlook the contributory factors in this, such as unemployment and poverty. To do this we need equality of jobs distribution, with most investment Belfast centric the time has come for Stormont to put up or shut up. A quick search online will show the disparity between new jobs for Belfast and those for Derry. But then again, if Derry doesn’t have decent infrastructure why would companies come here?

Five-point plan to tackle poverty:

The Joseph Rowntree foundation an independent organisation working to inspire social change, has developed a five-point plan to tackle poverty within the whole of the UK. This is something that our prospective candidates could consider bringing forward, the outcomes of the plan would be to:

· Boost incomes and reduce costs;

· Deliver an effective benefit system;

· Improve education standards and raise skills;

· Strengthen families and communities; and

· Promote long-term economic growth benefiting everyone.

Following this election, also we need to look at ways to make Stormont more accountable for both their actions and inactions. As was proven through the Daithi McKay and Jamie Bryson bromance fiasco, Stormont’s internal mechanisms for holding itself to account are questionable, seriously flawed and open to political corruption.

What we don’t need is another red sky, RHI or SIF fund fiasco, we don’t need tribal bullshit wrapped in sabre rattling as people fall through the cracks, as services hit the wall and people lose hope. What we do is need independent oversight provided by non-party aligned individuals, not quangos, not party lackeys masquerading as community workers. We need politicians who will put the people before the party, and sadly at this minute in time I’m finding difficulty in identifying one.

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