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Round trips of 200 miles 'too much to ask of people in crisis', says Caithness mental health group

By Alan Hendry

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Steven Szyfelbain, of No More Lost Souls, says distance is a major concern for people in Caithness who need specialist care. Picture: Alan Hendry
Steven Szyfelbain, of No More Lost Souls, says distance is a major concern for people in Caithness who need specialist care. Picture: Alan Hendry

A Caithness campaign group has insisted it is unacceptable to expect people in crisis to undertake 200-mile round trips for mental health appointments that may last less than half an hour.

No More Lost Souls echoed the view of Labour candidate Rhoda Grant, who this week voiced concern over continuing "gaps in the service" for adult mental health provision in the county.

The group wants a safe and secure psychiatric facility to be created in Caithness so that people in need of help don't have to make the journey to Inverness.

Its chairman, Steven Szyfelbain, said: "Rhoda Grant is absolutely correct – there are far too many gaps.

"We've heard from a broad spectrum of the population in Caithness regarding the difficulties they face, and paramount among their concerns is the vast distance we're often expected to travel to receive specialist care in Inverness."

Mrs Grant, Scottish Labour’s lead candidate on the regional list for the Highlands and Islands, underlined the need for people in Caithness to see professionals face-to-face and close to home rather than have to travel to the Highland capital.

She is trying to schedule a meeting with local organisations and NHS Highland.

No More Lost Souls has claimed that mental health is a bigger problem in Caithness than Covid-19, based on the number of suicides in the area. Mr Szyfelbain, who formed the group last summer, says he understands there have been 12 suicides in Caithness since the first lockdown began in 2020.

"If that alone doesn't highlight the severity of the crisis here then I honestly don't know what will," he said. "For those in crisis it's too much to ask of them to endure a 200-mile round journey for appointments that often last less than half an hour.

"It's not just the physical and emotional distress, it's the logistics as patient transport isn't often available to support the journey so a person is expected to make their own way at their own expense, which is rarely if ever reimbursed by the NHS unless you are in receipt of some form of state benefit, and even then it barely covers costs."

A pilot project called Caithness Cares has been set up with Scottish Government funding to tackle the mental health crisis as well as addiction issues. Highland Council, NHS Highland, Police Scotland and other groups are involved in the initiative to promote mental health and wellbeing in young people.

Mrs Grant said that, while the funding was very welcome, "this is only for children and young people aged from five to 24, or 26 if they have been in care”.

Mr Szyfelbain explained that No More Lost Souls is involved in Caithness Cares "in an advisory capacity". He went on: "It is actively targeting the age groups five to 26 but, as Mrs Grant notes, this is excluding a vast amount of the population here who face struggles with their mental health.

"We applaud the efforts of the project co-ordinators, but in realistic terms there needs to be an approach that encompasses all those in need which is then tailored to the specific needs and requirements of the individual.

It's not just the physical and emotional distress, it's the logistics as patient transport isn't often available to support the journey so a person is expected to make their own way.

"We are aware of a bullying culture within NHS Highland which has been preventing recruitment to these roles for the past several years, which has been brought to our attention by former NHS employees. This too needs looked into, as ultimately it is the people of Caithness who suffer when staff leave or resign having been bullied out of their positions.

"Caithness and its populace deserve a mental health service that is fit for purpose, with qualified and compassionate staff who see the individual and not just the illness, and who utilise both medications and therapy-based approaches instead of simply prescribing a laundry list of meds and then writing the patient off the books thereafter.

"This definitely aligns with Mrs Grant's view that face-to-face meetings are of utmost priority when treating the individual, and most definitely utilising creative thinking instead of the old methods of treating everyone as if there is a 'one size fits all' panacea."

Mr Szyfelbain added: "Rhoda Grant has been one of our most ardent supporters since the group's inception, and we are very grateful for the efforts she has made to support our campaign. She, and others like Edward Mountain, Molly Nolan and Struan Mackie, have shown that the mental health crisis in Caithness is more than just a party political issue – it is a humanitarian crisis.

"It gives us all great hope that they are addressing these matters head-on so that the next Scottish Government will pay attention and perhaps at last heed our pleas to strengthen the services we have available, and to develop them into a sound resource for all to use, now and for the future generations to come."

As well as campaigning for locally based services, No More Lost Souls seeks to break the stigma around discussing mental health issues.

A spokesperson for NHS Highland said: "We have been holding more appointments on Near Me due to safety measures that have been put in place due to the pandemic. However, face-to-face services are available in the community in Caithness.

"We are working on a number of developments for the future, including enhancing mental health support in both primary care and urgent care services. We are also working in collaboration with the community, partner organisations and mental health service colleagues in Caithness to ensure that we fully understand the local needs as we plan for the future.

"We continue to actively recruit and have had some recent success with the appointment of an urgent and emergency mental health nurse to improve unscheduled care pathways in Caithness. We have also recruited a mental health advanced nurse practitioner who will work with our three salaried practices in Caithness.

"The general adult team has recently welcomed an occupational therapist and a drug and alcohol recovery practitioner. We also have further recruitment planned for an advanced practitioner for drug and alcohol services.

"These posts will complement the skill mix within the Community Mental Health Team which includes nursing, support workers, cognitive behavioural therapy, guided self-help and psychology and psychiatry services."

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