Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Questions (18)

James Browne


18. Deputy James Browne asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his views on mental distress in the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38223/19]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Defence)

The health and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces is a high priority for me and my Department. Mental health supports are part of a range of medical and non-medical services provided to ensure that Defence Forces personnel are medically fit to undertake the duties assigned to them.

Medical mental health services available to personnel include access to clinical psychology and psychiatry services. The Psychology service assesses, diagnoses, treats and advises on strategies to prevent mental health disorders and there are currently two Clinical Psychologists employed by the Defence Forces. Psychiatry services specialise in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.

Deputies will already be aware of the ongoing efforts made by my Department to fill the vacancy left by the previous in-house military psychiatrist, who retired in May 2018. In this regard, a direct entrant competition for the position of military psychiatrist, which closed on 30th September 2018, yielded no applications.

To continue to provide an interim in-house service until such time as the military psychiatrist position could be filled, attempts were made to secure a locum psychiatrist but these also proved unsuccessful.

In order to explore every option to facilitate an in-house appointment, I gave approval for my Department to conduct a competition for a contracted civilian consultant psychiatrist on a temporary 24-month contract at pay rates equivalent to those available in the HSE. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) sanctioned the competition.

The Public Appointments Service is currently conducting a competition to fill the position. The closing date for the competition is 26 September 2019 and I am informed that there has been interest expressed in the vacancy.

Until this vacancy is filled, interim services are being provided through a combination of external public and private services. I wish to stress again that there is no delay in referring Defence Forces personnel requiring immediate psychiatric care or assessment. Patients presenting to Defence Forces Primary Carers (Medical Officers or contracted civilian GPs) with a requirement for urgent psychiatric assessment are referred to HSE Accident & Emergency Departments. Those requiring hospitalisation are admitted immediately.

Furthermore, in order to provide Defence Forces Primary Carers (Medical Officers or contracted civilian GPs) with the broadest range of options possible in dealing with the spectrum of cases that present to them, they have also been authorised to refer cases to local external private psychiatrists for outpatient treatment where deemed appropriate.

As I have outlined in the past, there is a nationwide shortage of trained psychiatrists, with recruitment issues in a number of sectors of the health service. The difficulty with recruitment for such a position is not unique to the Defence Forces.

In addition to the clinical supports I have outlined, non-medical mental health services are provided by the Defence Forces Personnel Support Service. The Defence Forces Personnel Support Service provides a welfare, information, psycho-social support and referral service to serving members of the Defence Forces and their families.

The service is also available to civilian employees, and in a limited role to veterans. This service sustains and enhances the individual well-being of personnel, and promotes a safe and positive work culture, in order to support the effectiveness of the Defence Forces.

The service is delivered through a network of military Barrack Personnel Support Service Officers and civilian Occupational Social Workers. This network of professionals is prepared to provide immediate help to service personnel and their families in a routine environment or at a time of crisis. This assistance can range from the simple provision of information to counselling or, if required, signposting and referral to specialist help and assistance.

Furthermore, the assistance may include providing psychosocial support, counselling and information & assistance services on a variety of issues, including relationships, general finances, addiction, retirement (including pensions and gratuities), housing, taxation and PRSI and much more.

In addition, my Department funds a confidential counselling, referral and support service for serving members of the Defence Forces, civilian employees and Civil Defence volunteers. The service provides confidential counselling on a wide range of personal and work related issues, including but not limited to health, relationships, addictions, financial, bereavement, stress, conflict, critical incident and trauma.

In the case of relationship counselling, the spouse or partner may also attend the counselling sessions.

A Freephone confidential helpline is available on a 24/7 basis 365 days a year. The helpline provides for referral to appointment-based telephone or face-to-face counselling.

While I am satisfied that the available medical services offer comprehensive supports to Defence Forces members, I can assure the Deputy that they are kept under constant review.