Covid-19 has shone new light on the mental health crisis facing communities in the Highlands. But as we all know, this is not a new problem: mental health and wellbeing issues have beset the Far North for many years. This is perhaps best illustrated by the Social Isolation and Mental Wellbeing Action Group’s November survey, which revealed that 65.3% of respondents have had a poor experience with mental health support in Caithness.
I know how lonely it can feel to struggle with mental health, and how difficult it can be to navigate the complexities of support services. I’ve also experienced just how crushing it is to successfully refer yourself, only to find that the waiting times for care are far beyond what could reasonably be considered acceptable. These are issues I dealt with myself as a teenager growing up in the Highlands, and several years on it is clear to me that young people are still being let down.
As we exit this pandemic, we must have a needle-sharp focus on fixing these problems once and for all. I’m a firm believer that local people know what is best for their communities. There is outstanding work being done on the ground across the Far North, and I will work in close partnership with these groups to amplify their voices at a national level. In particular I commend those who have driven the launch of the Caithness Mental Wellbeing Pathfinder project. This has been a monumental effort and it is a big step towards a sustainable, community-centred healthcare approach.
That being said, I am conscious that we need long-term systemic change for our communities across the Highlands. Unless the pandemic-triggered mental health grant funding is committed permanently to Highland Council, and in turn extended to every county across the region, these issues will persist. Reform is also needed at a national level. The Scottish Government’s Mental Health Strategy was already failing to adequately address the fact that thousands of young people are being turned away from mental health services every year. Now, the situation will be even worse. The Strategy desperately needs updated to reflect our post-Covid world, and it must happen sooner than 2022.
If there's one thing I'm heartened about it is that the Scottish Government has taken a decentralised approach to tackling mental health during this crisis. If we are to succeed in transforming mental wellbeing in Highland, we need decentralisation on the agenda as a permanent goal. As your MSP candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, I am absolutely determined to see this through.