'Taking a new approach to mental health service delivery'

'People are waiting longer and longer to access mental health services as their conditions deteriorate.'

Ulster University clinical psychology lecturer Dr Colin Gorman saw a problem that needed to be solved and after many attempts to get others on board to help, decided to solve it himself. The problem was lengthening waiting lists in under-resourced mental health services, the solution was to set up Pneuma Healthcare, a university spin-out company which provides psychological wellbeing practitioners (PWPs) who deliver online and remote support to mental health service users.

“The idea has been around for a long time,” says Dr Gorman. “I worked in mental health services for 25 years and there have always been problems with unde- resourcing. The service is not meeting people’s needs.”

The company name has its own story. “I have done a lot of work with people suffering from depression and anxiety. The life is drained out of them. I came across the word pneuma – meaning to breathe life into something. Mental health services need life breathed into them.”

Dr Gorman points out that people are waiting longer and longer to access mental health services and their conditions are deteriorating while they wait. “This is having a severe impact on people’s lives. Many people are dropping out of work or education as a result. The value of early intervention is that it stops the deterioration and helps people get back to normal life.”
Unlike many other sectors, talent availability isn’t a problem. “We are training up to 65 psychology MScs every year to very high standards. And the courses are always oversubscribed,” Dr Gorman says.

“Most of them want to work in mental health services but there is no employment for them. I wanted to find a way to support the retention of those graduates here in Northern Ireland.”

Dr Gorman spent years knocking on doors looking for a solution to the problem. “People kept making excuses and I got frustrated,” he says. “They weren’t seeing people who are suffering, who are depressed, who are suicidal. The thing that changed was that I decided to solve it myself.”
He started thinking about different models which could be used to address the problem and a chance connection with Ulster University start-up manager Fergus Begley prompted him to look at setting up a company to provide services in a different way.

“I wanted to offer a more flexible way to approach mental health problems,” Dr Gorman says. “Typically, a patient gets one hour of counselling once a week over 12 or 16 weeks. We really don’t know how effective that is. I designed a model for people to access support at an early stage by having eight sessions of 35 minutes over the telephone or video calls.

“This helps in getting to hard-to-reach people who are at work and so on. They can do a session in their lunch break or before they go to work. It’s a very flexible approach. When the pandemic hit, that lit a fire under it.”

The pandemic forced health services to look at new ways of delivering treatment to patients. “Service leads were asking how to do it remotely and virtually,” he notes. “England is a bit further on in that area. We had people from Northern Ireland moving to England when they qualified. When the pandemic hit they were told they could continue to work from Northern Ireland. They are now providing services to England from Northern Ireland.”

Dr Gorman spoke to an NHS Trust in England about his idea. “I asked them what they would think about us providing a service for them from Northern Ireland. Their clinical lead said they’d bite our arm off. We had a £400,000 contract before the business was set up. I spent a year working with the trust to design the service.

“We started on May 23rd last with a team of nine people working with the trust. We provide clinicians who treat people with anxiety and depression using low intensity cognitive behavioural therapy (LICBT). We help the person to help themselves. We have just taken on a team manager. That’s our tenth member of staff.”

Pneuma Healthcare also utilises data to continuously improve service effectiveness. “We assess every service provided to every client. We have data points for every intervention. We can modify the approach and tailor it to the individual as we go on. It’s a very person-centred approach. We use data to see what’s effective and inform best practice.”

The data can also be used to assess the effectiveness of therapists and where their strengths lie. “Some therapists can be good at some things but may need to improve in others,” Dr Gorman explains. “Other therapists may be good at different things. They can improve their effectiveness through peer learning and so on.”

Ulster University has played a critical role in the company’s development. “Fergus Begley provided a lot of encouragement and advice. I have no background in business and the university helped me get training in that area. Fergus also helped me to make connections in the business world and within the university. Prof Maurice Mulvenna of the Department of Computing came in to assist on the data side and is now on the board as an adviser. Martin Bell came in as a business consultant and helped devise our business plan.”

The university has also provided accommodation for the company on its Belfast and Magee campuses. “They also gave me a buyout of my contract for three years – 60 percent of my salary is paid by the university and the other 40 per cent by the company. This allows me to keep one foot in the university and one foot in Pneuma Healthcare for the next three years.”

The next steps for the company will see expansion into other trusts in England. “We have been speaking to trusts in Northern Ireland as well,” says Dr Gorman. “Our approach can be very effective for people who are hard to reach. I think there is cross-Border potential as well.”

Read the original article in the Irish Times