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Seven Highland politicians call on the health secretary for urgent support for mental health services in the Highlands in a rare cross-party show of support between the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties

By Scott Maclennan

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The wait to access mental health support in the Highland continues to rise and Covid is expected to make it worse still.
The wait to access mental health support in the Highland continues to rise and Covid is expected to make it worse still.

Mental health services in the Highlands are so bad that Conservative and Labour MSPs are working together alongside Greens and Liberal Democrats to put pressure on the Scottish Government to take action.

The seven politicians jointly wrote to health secretary Humza Yousaf to call for greatly improved mental health services in rural communities through urgent additional support.

They were backed by NHS Highland after talks over the summer underlined the problems of recruitment that are standing in the way of greater provision in communities.

For years, people seeking psychological help have spoken out about the tremendously long and difficult waits they have to endure and the difficulties the delay in accessing support has caused them.

Those claims were backed-up by Public Health Scotland figures published in April that show that up to December of last year 490 people waited longer than a year to begin psychological therapy in the NHS Highland area.

MSPs Edward Mountain and Rhoda Grant met with NHS Highland over the summer to identify the major obstacles standing in the way of an enhanced mental health care provision.

Three main problems arise that affect recruitment – a shortage of accommodation, concerns about the career paths for rural health practitioners and a lack of rural weighting in national pay scales.

The joint-letter was agreed with NHS Highland bosses leading the cross-party group to call on the Scottish Government to acknowledge problem and answer the call for fresh support to boost the recruitment.

Mr Mountain and Mrs Grant went on to ask all Highland and Islands MSPs and MPs without ministerial responsibility to sign the letter and the MSPs Douglas Ross, Donald Cameron, Jamie Halcro Johnston, Ariane Burgess and MP Jamie Stone agreed.

The letter stated: “Following a meeting with representatives from NHS Highland, we understand that rural mental health services are coming under severe pressure due to higher demand and staffing pressures.

“The shortage of mental health practitioners available in the remote rural settings has meant that NHS Highland is struggling to respond promptly to patients experiencing the early stages of a crisis and, on top of this, some patients are expected to travel long-distances to centralised services in Inverness. This is neither ideal nor sustainable.

“It is clear that more localised services, which can treat people within their local community, are required. We understand that NHS Highland are working hard to transition to this model of rural mental health provision, however they face a number of critical obstacles which are hampering their recruitment efforts.”

Mr Mountain said: “I’m very pleased that we have managed to get cross party agreement on this important issue but I am extremely disappointed that SNP MSPs and MPs, some of whom didn’t bother to respond to the request for support, have not joined our call.

“We need to move away from the model where mental health services are mostly centralised in Inverness and ensure that more mental health practitioners are working closer to remote rural communities.

“However, these positive changes are unlikely to arrive any time soon unless the Scottish Government offers more support to NHS Highland when it comes to housing, career development and pay scales for rural mental health practitioners.

“We can’t afford for the Scottish Government to overlook the unique challenges we face in the Highlands – what might work in the Central Belt, doesn’t always suit the needs of patients in our region.

“I have always believed that if our health services are local and closer to patients, then those services stand a better chance of helping people in crisis.”

Mrs Grant said: “I welcome that this initiative has cross-party support and I look forward to us all working together on this vital issue. The Scottish Government are wedded to centralising services and this must change for the good of our remote and rural areas across the region.

“I took the opportunity today at the Petitions Committee to support a petition to express similar concerns in the NHS Borders Health Board region and I’m pleased that the petition called for an agency to oversee the development of rural and remote health services.

"I would like to see a similar approach nationally to examine the nature of remote practice including recognising, valuing and supporting the generalist skills for our rural practitioners.

“Local knowledge and resources need to be safeguarded from centralisation and that needs to become a national priority.”

Related Story – Highland campaign group No More Lost Souls call for urgent improvements in mental health support

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