The mental health of Highlanders has never been more challenged than it is now. The impact of the pandemic and lockdowns are taking their toll and we have seen an increase in loneliness, anxiety, depression and suicidal feelings.
We are in the midst of a mental health crisis which our health care services in the far north are struggling to cope with due to a lack of provision.
Years of under-resourcing and under-funding our mental health teams across the Highlands has meant long waiting lists. Tragically, for some, that wait has been too long.
This is not the fault of our mental health care professionals. They are doing everything they can to support those in need, but they have not been helped in their efforts by NHS Highland and the SNP Scottish Government.
The downgrading of mental health services at New Craigs Hospital has seen reductions in staff and beds over the last four years. New Craigs only have limited recovery teams and is only in a position to help when people reach crisis point. Help needs to come far sooner, if we are to save more lives.
The mental health model is now so broken in NHS Highland that we are increasingly relying on the Police to the be the first line of defence in the community in helping those struggling with suicidal thoughts. Officers will always see it as their duty to step in and help, but it is a mark of a failing health model that they are having to do this so regularly.
Urgent change is now desperately needed. I therefore welcome the extra £120 million that has been made available for mental health services across Scotland and I am urging NHS Highland to spend their share of that funding on improving local services too.
Indeed, in my recent speech at the Scottish Parliament I set out the key policies that I feel NHS Highland should pursue to improve mental health services in our region.
Firstly, we need mental health professionals to be embedded in our GP practices. Centralising more and more services at New Craigs is not the answer. The No More Lost Souls campaign has made a similar argument and I support their call for more dedicated psychiatrists to be located in the far north.
Secondly, we need more collaboration between NHS Highland, mental health charities and support groups. The like of James Support Group and Mikeysline, charities that do so much to combat the stigma of mental health and offer innovative support, must be part of the solution.
Thirdly, more needs to be done to raise public awareness of what support is available and to make it more accessible. We need to introduce effective online portals for mental health support so that people can be signposted to appropriate services and help groups in the area. That information should be provided the first time that a patient presents themselves to their GP.
All of these recommendations could have and should have been made in the last 14 years but the current SNP Scottish Government has not prioritised mental health enough.
Highlanders have a chance to change that on 6 May and I believe all candidates should be campaigning to resolve the Highland mental health crisis.
**Originally published in the John O'Groat Journal, 13 March 2021