Statements on Mental Health and Covid-19

12 February 2021

Ivana Bacik

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. She is always very welcome. I thank the Leader for setting up this important debate. It is good to have the opportunity to speak on mental health and Covid. The number of speakers lined up this afternoon shows just how important it is and how seriously we all take it.

I join with my Labour colleague, Senator Hoey, in acknowledging the immense impact that Covid has had on everyone, as well as on mental health, feelings of isolation, loneliness, distress and stress. Others have eloquently spoken about the true impact upon mental health.

It is not particularly helpful to blame the media for reporting in a straightforward and a fair way on what is going on. I commend in particular some of the really striking and moving reports we have seen in the past week alone from RTÉ "Prime Time". One last week involved going out with an ambulance crew in Cork and another report this week came from Tallaght hospital. These bring home the reality of Covid for front-line workers. That is really important work the media are doing.

I would be critical, however, of the Government's lack of communication as to a plan for getting us through this. That matter in particular is why all Members are hearing that everyone is finding this lockdown the hardest. There is no light at the end of the tunnel when we are told of another six weeks or another 12 weeks of level 5 lockdown, of living under draconian restrictions without the prospect of a cohesive and clear plan for getting us through it.

This week, my party put forward in the Dáil a clear national aggressive suppression strategy, effectively a zero Covid approach, which would require us to adopt the sort of approach we have seen in New Zealand. We are adopting it anyway in terms of strict lockdown. Such an approach would give people hope. If we coupled it with mandatory hotel quarantining for all arrivals, we would then see a way forward to returning to some sort of normality, pending the full roll-out of the vaccines, and even beyond that, as we know with the new variants coming in that vaccination alone will not resolve the issue. Anyone watching events in New Zealand is struck by how much less stress and how much less impact on mental health the global pandemic is causing citizens and residents there.

It is not possible to debate Covid and mental health without acknowledging that people need to see hope for the future. What is causing the heaviest burden for so many is the lack of hope we are experiencing due to this ongoing feeling of rolling lockdowns and no prospect of getting through it or of what lies beyond. Will the Minister of State pass that on to her colleagues in the Government? We need clear communication of a clear strategy. Then people can live much more easily with the stress, distress and loneliness of lockdown, if they know that we are getting through it with a purpose.

I welcome the fact that front-line mental health staff will be included in the vaccination plan for front-line healthcare workers. That is important. All of us are conscious that those resident in institutions and in mental health centres have been badly hit by the direct effect of Covid. Some 29 persons who were resident in mental healthcare facilities died from Covid. One must think of them, as well as of their families and their friends so sadly bereaved by their loss.

I wish to emphasise the effect of Covid on the mental health of children. Earlier this week, along with Deputy Ó Ríordáin, I launched a proposal for a catch-up scheme for children. A sum of €100 million should be pledged by the Government to enable schools to apply for targeted funding to make up to children for the immense loss they have suffered as a result of prolonged school closures. This has been recognised in Britain for more than a year. Just last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies in Britain published a paper stating the crisis in lost learning calls for a massive national policy response. It pointed out the potential devastating effect of the crisis on educational inequalities and the mental health of children. We need to see a similar acknowledgement here of the impact on children. We need to see resources targeted to address the impacts on children and the serious impact Covid and associated school closures have had on their mental health. I rely on the Minister of State to bring these messages back to the Government. I am very interested in hearing what she thinks of a catch-up fund for children. It is an important practical measure we could introduce.