Primary school children in Northern Ireland could be left without a popular mental health program due to a lack of funding, NI’s Mental Health Champion has warned.

Professor Siobhan O’Neill said the Healthy Happy Minds (HHM) initiative was at risk of being closed completely as the Department for Education tried to cut the budget.

Launched in November 2021, the pilot program offers primary school children early interventions for poor mental health, teaching them coping skills and maintaining mental wellbeing.

Prof O’Neill said this was a pivotal moment in the mental health care of young people.

“In the last few days I got an email saying it probably wasn’t going to happen, that there were no plans to extend it,” she said.

“We are close to confirming that there is no money in the proposed budget.

“But of course we’re still really waiting for Westminster’s final budget, so I always have a bit of hope that things can change, so I’m giving it a scoop now.”

The program itself consisted of a range of supports provided to primary school children, often in less formal ways than traditional therapies.

It was awarded £5m when it launched two years ago and a further £2.25m in July last year.

“HHM was a whole program that could have included counselling, but it was counseling that looked like play therapy, art therapy, music and drama therapy that would really support young people with negative emotions to help them understand their emotional response and to to help deal with it better. with stress and pressure,” said prof. O’Neill said.

Northern Ireland Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan O'Neill
Northern Ireland Mental Health Champion Professor Siobhan O’Neill

“These were children who really struggled and who could become mental health users in the future.

“To date it has helped more than 19,000 children, that’s a large amount of children for little money and schools say the need is still there.

“Young people still come through with all kinds of issues, setbacks and trauma to deal with – formal mental health services are currently unable to deliver, there are long waiting lists for services.

“It was just such a beautiful program that allowed the schools to define what was required and bring in the therapists themselves to deliver the interventions individually or in groups.”

However, she also admitted that the Department of Education had landed in a difficult position with budgets under pressure across all sectors of government.

“We are just disappointed that schools that would have depended on it will not have it now,” she said.

“I also recognize that the department cannot go anywhere here, they are cutting everything they can cut.

“It was a pilot, so they’re in a really terrible position.

“I just hope someone sees it and makes a decision to fund it.”

The Ministry of Education has confirmed that it is unlikely to continue funding the programme.

“The Healthy Happy Minds therapeutic and counseling pilot will run until the end of March 2023”, a a spokesman said.

“The program is subject to an independent assessment and DE expects it to be completed by the end of March 2023.

“Current indications are that DE will face an extremely challenging budget outcome for 2023-24 and it is therefore unlikely that the Department will be able to proceed with this pilot project beyond the end of March.”

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