SDLP MLA on how tragedy of losing best friend to suicide fuels pursuit of better services

What would you do if someone close to you committed suicide?

SDLP MLA and ambassador for Me4Mental, Cara Hunter, was forced to answer this question in 2017 when her best friend chose to take his own life at just 20 years old.

“He was an all-round wonderful person person – so creative and kind. I keep a photo of him on my desk. He is the fuel behind my pursuit of better mental health services in NI,” she said.

It was from this moment onwards that Hunter began her war against insufficient mental health services in Northern Ireland.

“It was only four months after he had passed that I pleaded with MLAs to do something about the mental health crisis in our country. When I speak to suicide prevention groups or parents of those who have chosen the same path now, they have an ear like no other.”

With a legacy of more than 30 years of conflict, Northern Ireland has the highest prevalence of mental illness in the UK and an online poll revealing how much the mental health of most has suffered during the current pandemic certifies that we are only going backwards.

Much goes to show that we are not equipped to handle this crisis either, with only six percent of our health budget being devoted to mental health, which is half of that of England. This low investment has led to underfunded mental health services – with most charities only being able to afford people with six to twelve free counselling sessions – and mounting waiting times.

This short-term, quick-fix model is “not good enough” says Hunter, as it leaves most “high and dry” afterwards.

“Some people can be waiting for up to 57 weeks, which is horrendous,” she said.

Health Minister Robin Swann’s announcement last May that he is going to allocate £1.5 million to the implementation of a Mental Health Action Plan for NI in response to COVID-19 was a “huge positive”, says Hunter.

“All funding is appreciated. It enables charities to hire more counsellors and adopt better strategies.

I was keen to learn that £180,000 had been gifted to suicide prevention services recently, such as the Community Crisis Intervention Service, which provides a safe-base for those on a night out or out late between the hours of 9pm-9am.”

VP of Sport and Wellbeing at Ulster University, Chris Chambers, feels that more energy should be put into awareness services, however, to prevent people from allowing their mental health to deteriorate to this extent before reaching out.

“It costs more to rehabilitate than it does to prevent so if we could put more money into these services then maybe the numbers for waiting lists would reduce and charities could relax more.

Afterall, it costs more to fix a broken leg than it does to prevent one. Mental health works the same way.”

If you or anyone you know is experiencing distress or despair, please call lifeline on 0808 808 8000.