Northern Ireland

Plea for mental health minister in new Stormont executive

Boy in tunnel Image copyright Getty Images

There have been calls for a minister dedicated to mental health to be in any new Stormont executive.

It follows the deaths of a number of people by suicide - including an 11-year-old boy- over the Christmas and New Year period.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said any new executive must prioritise mental health.

She said "urgent action ... is needed to provide people in despair with the help and hope they need".

"Any new executive must demonstrate that this is the highest level priority," she added.

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Media captionYoung people call for improved mental health services and education in Northern Ireland

"That's why I think it's necessary that we have a junior minister dedicated to improving the mental health and wellbeing of all our citizens, especially our young people who are facing unprecedented pressures in today's world.

"People and families are crying out for help.

"We need to demonstrate that we are serious about addressing this challenge."

Image caption Nichola Mallon is an MLA in North Belfast

In 1970, 73 people took their own lives in Northern Ireland, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

In 2013, there were more than 300 deaths - and that figure has remained largely the same since.

Pure Mental NI, a mental health campaign group made up of young people, gathered at a rally in Belfast on Saturday calling for improved mental health services in Northern Ireland.

The campaigners said they also want to see better mental health education in classrooms here.

Philip McTaggart's son died in 2003 and he has spent years working with bereaved families.

He believes a mental health emergency should be called in Northern Ireland.

Image caption Philip McTaggart said he believes a mental health emergency should be called in Northern Ireland

"I remember when they talked about swine flu or bird flu and they were very quick that there was an emergency called then, and yet we have an epidemic here where many people are dying by suicide and yet they still haven't called it a public emergency," he said.

The BBC asked for an interview with the Department of Health but was told no one was available.

There is a crisis response team, to be rolled out in the Belfast area this year, paid for by some of the money secured by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for mental health in its arrangement with the Conservatives. It was initially operating in the South Eastern Trust area.

"Any individual ringing 999 who's in social or emotional crisis can be directed right through to that team, and their crisis can be deescalated before they even get into the system," said Seamus Mullen, of the Public Health Agency.

Details of organisations which offer advice and support can be found on the BBC's Actionline - bbc.co.uk/actionline

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