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Holyrood Notebook: Clear plan needed to tackle mental health crisis in the Highlands

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Change is needed to make sure people in the Highlands can get the support they need, MSP Edward Mountain says.
Change is needed to make sure people in the Highlands can get the support they need, MSP Edward Mountain says.

MSP Edward Mountain sets out his vision for solving recruitment difficulties hindering mental health treatment in remote rural areas.

The Highlands continues to be in the midst of a mental health crisis and we need to see action urgently.

Years of under-resourcing our overstretched mental health teams has seen waiting lists become longer and longer. Tragically, for some, the wait has been too long and the impact of the pandemic has only compounded the problem.

People should be receiving mental health treatment before they ever reach a crisis point but NHS Highland simply does not have the resources to deliver that. This needs to change.

We need to have a mental health model which makes decisions based on medical need, not on what limited staff are available.

The crisis in our region is so serious that I firmly believe politicians from all parties have a duty to work together to address the challenge.

Indeed, it was this shared concern that prompted MSP Rhoda Grant and me to meet with NHS Highland officials to discuss the key obstacles hindering the health board’s attempts to create a new model of mental health care.

In our meeting, it soon became clear that there were three major barriers.

Firstly, a shortage of suitable housing for new mental health practitioners means some are unable to consider relocating to rural communities across the Highlands.

Secondly, potential recruits are worried about their career paths. Some are cautious about working in a remote setting as they fear development of their practice could stall due to reduced quantity and diversity of patients.

Finally, the national pay structure for mental health practitioners does not reflect the additional expense of working in remote areas. This puts NHS Highland at a distinct disadvantage when competing to attract new staff.

To address these challenges we require targeted actions specific to the needs of the Highlands, rather than solutions that are built for the Central Belt.

Therefore, the Scottish Government should consider introducing a rural weighting in salary packages for mental health staff; provide assurances that the career paths of rural health practitioners can be protected; and also support NHS Highland to have a stock of “hired housing” which can be tied to new mental health posts.

These are the policy proposals that we have, in agreement with NHS Highland, put to the Scottish Government in a joint letter signed by Highland MSPs and MPs from the Scottish Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Green Party.

I believe these are practical solutions which can go a long way to boosting recruitment and resolving the mental health crisis in the Highlands.

That’s why I am disappointed no MP or MSP from the SNP chose to sign the letter. Party politics should not get in the way of improving access to mental health care in our region.

I would therefore urge the Cabinet Secretary for Health to give the joint-letter serious consideration and to respect how much more progress can be made if we work together on a cross-party basis. This is exactly what the Highlands needs.

As we await the Health Secretary’s response, be in no doubt that I will always press for mental health services to be local and closer to patients, as those services stand a better chance of helping people in crisis.

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