A number of councillors have stated their disappointment at the Department of Health Permanent Secretary’s refusal to meet with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to discuss concerns over the provision of mental health services in the district.

At the beginning of August, Council Chief Executive Brendan Hegarty sent a letter to Mr. Pengelly requesting him to attend a joint meeting with the Council and Permanent Secretaries of Department of Education and Department of Justice to discuss the various initiatives to address the mental health needs of children and young people in the district particularly with regard to suicide prevention.

Responding to the letter, Mr. Pengelly noted how he has already provided the Council with “comprehensive details” of mental health services and suicide prevention programmes for children and young people in the Western Area in previous correspondence.

He added: “My Department does not directly commission services or deliver health and wellbeing services.”

Mr. Pengelly suggested that the Council meet instead with the Public Health Agency.”

The response from Mr. Pengelly was not well received.

During the Council meeting on September 3, Independent Councillor Josephine Deehan commented: “I think the point all along that we were trying to make was that the services that are currently being provided to our young people in terms of mental health provision and the prevention of suicide just simply aren’t working because of the high rates of depression, anxiety and indeed suicide amongst our population so it is regrettable that Mr. Pengelly didn’t wish to meet with us.”

Councillor Deehan proposed that they should proceed to convene a meeting with the Public Health Agency regarding the effectiveness of mental health services, even in the absence of the Permanent Secretary and representatives from the Department of Justice.

Stating that it’s “absolutely unacceptable”, Independent Councillor John McCluskey added: “If he continues to refuse to meet us, is there any other avenues we can take?

“We seriously need to have a look at this because we can’t go on repeating, doing the same thing twice, three or four times.”

Sinn Fein Councillor Catherine Kelly expressed her party’s “disappointment” in Mr. Pengelly’s “dismissiveness in view of the crisis that we are facing” and requested that the Council write to Valerie Watts, Chief Executive of the Public Health Agency.

Prior to the letter requesting the Permanent Secretary to meet with the Council, Mr. Hegarty had sent a letter to the Department of Health outlining the Council’s concerns regarding access protocol breaches for CAMHS referrals in the Western Health and Social Care Trust.

Responding to the letter, Mr. Pengelly wrote: “Increasing demand for child and adolescent mental health services means that performance against the CAMHS nine week access target remains a challenge across the region.

“This is compounded by a shortage of staff and recruitment issues.”

He continued by sharing the Western Health and Social Care Trust’s “comprehensive action plan”.

Commenting that Mr. Pengelly “hasn’t really answered” what the Council had asked in regards to what the Department of Health are doing to address the staffing crisis in mental health services, Ulster Unionist Councillor John McClaughry said: “They have told us that they have robust recruiting but a timescale would be better.”

He added: “To deal with these problems they need staff in place. Staff can do a good job but if there are no staff, nobody can do a good job and I feel as though they’re skirting around it.”

Councillor McClaughry proposed that the Council reply to Mr. Pengelly requesting a timescale of when extra staff would be in place.

“The fact we are being told that there is a robust recruitment programme in place, that doesn’t really address the problems at all,” said Councillor McClaughry.

Cross Community Labour Alternative (CCLA) Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh added to the debate by saying: “There is a contradiction in the letter from the Permanent Secretary, in one line he says the Western Trust has a comprehensive action plan in place to address the current breaches within the CAMHS and at the very end of it, he says the HSCB continues to engage with all Trusts to ensure breaches are given priority and plans are being put in place to reduce the breaches.

“So in one hand he says there are already plans in place and then on the other hand they are acting to make sure that the plans are put into place.

“This is coming from our Permanent Secretary, this is a response to our Council on a most important matter and he cannot even get his own argument coherent. It’s frankly appalling,” he concluded Councillor O’Cofaigh.