Opening Address at Annual ICP Conference 2007

Speaking at the official opening of the Conference Dan Neville T.D., President Irish Association of Suicidology stated.

I note that the Council for Psychotherapy is fully supportive of statutory registration of psychotherapists. In fact the ICP has been very proactive in seeking to have the profession of psychotherapy included in the first wave of statutory registration for health and care professionals.

During the course of the debate on the Health & Social Care Professionals Bill 2000 I spoke very strongly in relation to the need of regulating counsellors and therapists and that it was unacceptable that the situation was not regularised. I note that the ICP has strict criteria for acceptance of psychotherapists into its organisation. Yet, we have a situation where there is no statutory regulation. There is an absence of control in relation to those who decide to act as therapists or counsellors. There is ignorance and not a little confusion within the general public as to what psychotherapy and counselling are and what the difference is. This is compounded by the fact that there are, according to U.S. estimates over 400 different named therapies which are used to tackle many medical and social problems including marriage and family difficulties, anxiety, depression, addiction, sexual abuse, rape, psycho sexual difficulties, eating disorders, bereavement, adolescent difficulties, Aids, HIV and many more.

In other medical professions there is a requirement for a basic qualification in medicine and professionals continue to specialise. The absence of clear roles and dedicated procedures for those roles fuse confusion in the absence of regulation and also a situation where many calling themselves counsellors in the community and private practice do not warrant professional recognition. One does not need a recognised qualification or skill base to call oneself a psychoanalyst or a counsellor. All that is required are premises, a gold plaque outside the door and the neck to charge the fee.

There are no means to regulate the present unregulated situation and the opportunity for untrained people acting as psychotherapists and counsellors to do damage is frightening.

Vulnerable people in crisis who need professional help can be severely damaged. This situation has been exposed by some practicing alternative medicines where people have been duped out of life savings. There is an urgency by which a regulatory process is introduced in the area of all administration of all areas of therapeutic intervention.


The Report on the psychiatric services Planning for the future published in December 1984 recommended multi disciplinary community oriented psychiatric services. It stated:

Different approaches to treatment and participation of people from a number of professional disciplines are required to cater adequately for the needs of the mentally ill.

The psychiatric team should have a consultant psychiatrist as its leader and should include the services of psychiatric nurses and have access to services of clinical psychologist, social workers, occupational therapists and a health administrator.I fully accept this except for the issue of team leadership which should rotate on a 6 monthly basis between the professionals.

It further recommended community orientated service and by community orientated services we mean a service providing a full range of treatment to persons with psychiatric problems with minimum disruption to their normal way of life. This definition implies that most patients should not be admitted to hospital and that treatment services should be delivered to them in their normal social environment

One of the key recommendations of A Vision for Change published in January 2006 again stated that well trained, fully staffed community based community mental health teams should be put in place for all mental health services. These teams should provide mental health services across the individual life span.

To provide an effective community based service, community mental health teams should offer multi disciplinary home based and assertive outreach care and a comprehensive range of medical psychological and social therapies relevant to the needs of service users and their families.

A study published in January 2007 by the Irish Psychiatric Association informed that only a tiny minority of respondents indicated that they had a fully staffed multi displinary clinical team as set out in A Vision for Change and there was considerable variation both within and across services in what constituted for them a generic community mental health team. Clinical staffing deficits were apparent in adult mental health services, community mental health teams which must have a less than optimal impact on the services delivered”.

There has been a serious lack of resources invested in the development of our mental health services. We have consistently received reports and submissions in relation to what is required, yet little attention has been paid to responding to the needs of the service to provide a 21st century world class service. There is urgent need for greater psychotherapy in the mental health area. The Irish College of Psychiatry has reported to the Joint Oireachtas Committee of Health & Children, of which I am a member that 83% of psychiatric consultants do not have access to a psychotherapist, 76% to a family therapist and 33% to an occupational therapist. A senior consultant psychiatrist in the public service informed the Oireachtas Committee that he has 480 patients with a staff compliment of one community nurse, one social worker, 2 junior doctors who are changed every 6 months and one third of a psychologist. Mental illness treatment requires more time per patient than such a regime permits.

This means for example that in a catchment area of 100,000 which has 4 or 5 general adult psychiatrists would have just one psychologist.

The treatment plan for a patient with a mental illness should address both the pharmacological, psychological and social needs of the patient. In 80% of cases in Ireland the psychological and social needs are ignored.

Private psychotherapists and psychologists are available in the community. Why can we not buy 8 or 10 sessions for the individuals concerned under the treatment purchase fund.

I cannot see the reason why varicose veins and now removal of tattoos is more important than the treatment of depression. Both the national treatment purchase fund and waiting lists initiative has never been available to the mental health patients even though there are many areas of psychiatry in which there are long waiting lists. Child and adolescent psychiatry is one such area which there is a waiting periods of up to two years and more.

It is accepted that early intervention to deal with psychiatric and emotional difficulties is the key to cure. Delay in treatment allows the condition to deteriorate and become chronic. Investment in early intervention is not alone cost effective but also reduces the number of consultations required subsequently. It is accepted that mental health is a serious public health issue, that mental health affects one in four of us during our lifetime and causes more disability than lung problems. Therefore it is a disgrace that development of the services are neglected year after year.

There is no confidence among the public in the support for services for people who are suicidal. A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Irish Association of Suicidology asked the question “Can you tell me what support services or organisations you are aware of that are available to people who are suicidal.” The response showed that 50% identified the Samaritans, 22% identified AWARE. Just 7% identified counselling services with 6% hospitals or psychiatric hospitals. In fact 80% of those surveyed identified non government organisations as the support service for those who are suicidal.

Just over one in four people are unable to state any organisation that provides support services to suicidal people. Of concern is the fact that this level rises to almost 40% amongst 15-24 year old males.

This is a serious indictment of the government in relation to its concerns for people who are suicidal and in crisis and are in need of support. Recent tragic events in relation to seeking of assistance by suicidal people demonstrates the lack of service especially at night and at week-ends when the demand for such assistance is at its highest.

Immediate investment should be made in psychotherapy and counselling services in all communities and this should be readily available to people in crisis on an around the clock basis.


The National Suicide Research Foundation identifies in excess of 11,000 presentations of accident and emergencies at Irish hospitals each year. While this is a deeply disturbing figure and presents an enormous level of suffering for too many families and a tragic level of suffering for the patients involved,the true picture is much more serious and not researched. The reports of the Research Foundation highlights the incidence of attempted suicide and deliberate self harm presenting at Accident & Emergency. We do not have figures for people who attempt suicide and self harm and who present only to their family doctor or other professional.

We do not further have figures for the vast amount of sufferers who do not seek help and who with their families are in deep distress. Too many families are in crisis wondering when will their loved one again make an attempt on their life or when they will suffer enormous trauma of completed suicide. It is conservatively estimated that in excess of 60,000 people attempt suicide or self harm annually.

There is urgent need to invest in research to determine the full extent of the problem and to introduce prevention programmes. The responsibility of this rests with the Minister for Health & Children. Society as a whole must demand that the causes of this enormous public health issue are researched and those in crisis and their families are entitled to professional help. This is not adequately available at present. No amount of camouflage by a department can hide this fact. The work of the National Suicide Research Foundation would be useful in the allocation of resources.

It will identify groups which are particularly vulnerable and will be in a position to assist the Health Service Executive to evaluate the impact of preventative and clinical services being provided.

International studies have found parasuicide to be one of the most significant risk factors associated with suicide. Those who engage in self harm are 20 times more likely to eventually die by suicide. Studies have shown that at least one third of all suicides have a history of parasuicide. The development on delivery of interventions for this patient group should be a priority for the Health Services It is scandalously lacking. The Department of Health & Children cannot and must no longer ignore or be complacent about the growing incidence of self harm and suicide.

Suicide and deliberate self harm is also a symptom and indicator of the mental health of our population. How well do we treat those who deliberately self harm. ?

We must research the fundamental family, social, cultural, economic, educational and other determines of poor mental health and suicidal behaviour in our society. While the level of discussion and openness on mental health issues, including deliberate self harm and suicide has increased in recent years we have a long way to go.

Stigma still prevents frank and open discussion. It allows the authorities to hide behind the inaction in dealing with the problem. I fully agree with Professor Ivan Perry, Director of the National Para suicide Registry when he stated we need to ensure that public discussion and media coverage remains measured, well informed and sensitive to the needs and wellbeing of psychological vulnerable and distressed individuals in our society

In particular we need to continue to work with society to create a culture and environment where people in psychological distress feel able to seek help and have that help available through multi disciplinary community based mental health services.


I would like briefly to deal with the stigma surrounding mental and emotional difficulties. Why do so many people keep this type of illness hidden within their souls? Their illness is imprisoned within their psychic system and not be shared with anybody, even closest relatives, friends or loved ones .

Our society has cruelly failed many who are tortured by mental illness. This failure is directly involved in many suicides. Attempted suicide victims are often sworn to secrecy by their families not to reveal those attempts due to shame or embarrassment. Those who suffer mental illness feel stigmatised by attitudes and views from a time when psychiatry was not as developed as it is to-day.

The stigma associated with words such as lunatic,mad, deranged, crazy, daft ,balmy,crackbrained, nutcase etc., reinforces prejudices and misunderstanding that many people have about mental illness. The stereotyping of mentally ill patients will allow people to continue to make fun of people who are suffering and will allow to continue the discrimination against this population.

We must raise above this type of abusive language and attitude. Those in leadership positions must make every attempt to educate people who don’t understand the pain of mental illness. Then and only then will people come forward and begin to admit the pain of their illness and seek solid mainstream help. Then and only then will we demand action from Government to acknowledge the scandal of the neglected psychiatric services.

Until there is a watershed of society’s attitude many will hide their illness because no one wants to be referred to as crazy. Until it is OK to be mentally ill as it is to be physically ill will we as a society have, at last, accepted mental illness as part of our human existence. Anyone may suffer a mental illness. Anyone may die by suicide.


Research published in the mid 2006 highlighted the fact that 60% of female and 35% of male prisoners have suffered from mental illness. Each year, 300 people are committed to prison who have had 6 months prevalence of severe and enduring mental illness.

Most of these prisoners are not a danger to society and they require medical intervention. Of the prison population 40% of women and 25% of men in prison have self harmed or attempted suicide. These people are in urgent need of treatment which they do not receive.

Over 600 prisoners each year end up in padded cells as they are in danger of taking their own lives. We had a miserable description of one such unfortunate individual as reported to the Inspector of Prisons who told us of an inmate who was 28 days in a padded cell screaming his head off and urinating and defecating all over the place. The prisoner was not seen by a doctor. Unfortunately the situation has been well known for many years.

The Government must introduce two distinctive but co coordinating systems, one outside the prisons and community and one inside the prisons. First, we must deal appropriately with psychiatric illness before it becomes criminalised. Secondly, consideration must be given to establishing a mental health court system. This has been effective in some other jurisdictions. This court could have 4 broad objectives. To preserve public safety, to reduce an appropriate incarceration of mentally ill offenders and promote their wellbeing, to relieve the Department of Justice as regards correction of inmates with mental disability and to reduce repeated criminal activity among mentally ill offenders.

Such courts could have the option in relation to low risk mentally ill prisoners of following a carefully monitored individual plan of mental health treatment instead of a custodial sentence.

However, a mere court system will not be sufficient if it is not an inherent part of a well planned and co ordinated monitoring and service provision programme which involves the mental health services. The approach would involve the court services, the Department of Justice, Equality & Law Reform and the Department of Social, Community & Family Affairs, the Probation and Welfare Services and the Health Services Executive all functioning in partnership. The chief aim would be to be make available schemes for those who are judged fit to live in the community.

The programme would address both the need for humane treatment of the mentally ill via suitable community schemes and the largely wasteful and ineffective financial burdens placed by the Department of Justice, Equality & Law Reform.

I thank the Irish Council for Psychotherapy for inviting me to declare its Conference officially open.