I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue. I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for coming in to hear what I have to say and to give her opinion on it.
The lack of priority afforded to the filling of the post of director of the national office of suicide prevention, NOSP, is indicative of the priority the Government is giving this most serious issue of suicide prevention and mental health. In the past 12 months, two directors have departed the office. Geoff Day quit the post expressing concern about the lack of resources and staffing with a budget of €7 million this year and Dr. Susan O'Keeffe, appointed to the role in June, lasted only three months before being poached by the Department of Health. The HSE said the vacancy would be filled by October but the acting director of the office, Martin Rogan, said this would be more likely to happen in mid-November. Once again, it will be filled through an internal process. Can we have confidence this process will ensure the best candidate is recruited? Can we be confident the Department of Health will not seek to poach the new director, as happened previously? It is regrettable that, in the past year, three different directors had to be appointed and there were periods during which nobody was in the post, thus highlighting a lack of leadership and direction in this critical office.
Noel Smith, founder of suicide charity, the 3ts, said, the vacuum at the head of the NOSP was telling about the Government's attitude to suicide. This is happening at a time, unfortunately, that the number of people dying by suicide is increasing. Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate among 14 to 24 year olds in the EU and the third highest among young men aged between 15 and 19 while the preliminary figures indicate that 525 people died by suicide last year. I am conscious that only this week a leading psychologist, Dr. Tony Bates, suggested that the intense focus in society on suicide is conditioning some people into thinking that it is a viable option in their options. He talked about focusing on strengthening the mental health of young people rather than emphasising the issue of suicide.
Will the Minister of State confirm that she has devolved responsibility from the senior Minister for mental health? Why does the €35 million which was redirected from the health budget to community mental health services remain largely unspent? If this remains unspent, the cut to mental health funding will be 8%, not 1%. I understand recruitment for a number of positions is ongoing but no one will be appointed prior to 10 December and, therefore, none of the €35 million will be spent. This signals the lack of commitment by the Government to mental health. Following one full year of promising to spend €35 million on community mental health services, it remains unspent.
When will the post of director of the national office of suicide prevention be filled? Is the Minister of State confident adequate resources will be in place to ensure the new director will be able to do his or her job? Is she happy the internal recruitment will deliver the best person for the job and there will not be a repeat of the Department poaching the appointee? Will any of the €35 million budget be spent this year? If so, how much? Will any of this money be used to plug the large deficit in the general health budget? As Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, will she give a clear assurance that the Government's commitment to provide €35 million per annum for community mental health services will be honoured?
I raise this because I have a deep interest in this issue. I am a founder member of the North Westmeath Suicide Prevention Group and I am a member of the cross-party committee on mental health. I acknowledge the Minister of State has a deep commitment to this issue and I hope she will alleviate some of the concerns and fear I have raised.