A web-chat suicide support channel that had to be taken offline because it repeatedly crashed has been accused of being done ‘on the cheap’, according to MSPs.

The Breathing Space web-chat service, run by NHS 24 in Scotland, cost less than £50,000 to run and a one-year contract with its supplier has not been published under procurement rules.

Politicians today blamed ‘penny pinching’ for the failures of the chat facility – which has broken down five times since July, disconnecting users in mental distress.

Tess White MSP, said: “Given the mental health crisis – particularly among our young people – in Scotland, it is deeply alarming that this crucial service has been done on the cheap.

“With the service repeatedly crashing, vulnerable people who urgently require support may now have fallen through the cracks.

“There appears to be a lack of long-term strategy to tackle mental health on the SNP’s watch if contracts are only being awarded for a year.

“This sort of penny-pinching must stop. SNP ministers must pull out all the stops to ensure that this service is reliable and supporting those who need it most.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and health spokesperson, added:  “Cheap, temporary sticking plasters just won’t cut it when you’re dealing with poor mental health.   

“People are using this service because they are stuck on spiralling waiting lists, so the government should be doing all they can to make that service fit for purpose. Sadly, it seems that isn’t happening.  

“As well as ensuring users can access this support without any further hassle, I would like to see ministers listening to Scottish Liberal Democrats for longer-term change. That includes increasing the number of training places for psychiatrists and psychologists and rolling out more counsellors in schools, GPs and A&E departments.”  

The webchat service, run by the 111 helpline NHS 24, was closed for two weeks while IT specialists tried to fix gremlins. It has now been closed again for another repair and follows the appointment of a new supplier in June. Sources told the Times that the service kept disconnecting users, some of whom will have been experiencing significant mental distress.

Breathing Space advisers at NHS 24 provide confidential support to callers suffering low mood, anxiety and depression. The additional option of reaching them by webchat on the website was introduced in 2019. Breathing Space is funded by the Scottish government’s mental health unit and is delivered from NHS 24 contact centres in Hillington and South Queensferry.

NHS 24 said it was working with specialists to provide ‘stability’ for the platform, but in the meantime advised people to call the helpline or access online information resources.

A spokesperson said: “Breathing Space is a telephony-based service helping people suffering low mood, anxiety and depression. Webchat is an optional channel that can be used to access Breathing Space advisors.

“The webchat option is currently unavailable owing to intermittent technical issues that we are working with suppliers to resolve. There have been five occasions where the service has been interrupted since July, the longest period for 14 days. We are working with specialists to provide consistent stability for the platform and in the meantime are advising service users via our website that the telephone service and online information resources are available should they need support.

“Breathing Space phone lines are unaffected, and the service continues to support over 9,000 callers each month who are experiencing issues such as low mood, depression, or anxiety. All Breathing Space advisors are highly trained and are focused on providing a professional and safe service for callers.”

The spokesperson declined to reveal the commercial details of the web service since the switchover in June. However, they did confirm that it did “not meet the threshold for regulated procurement as it is a one year contract under £50k in value.”

The Scottish Government published its Mental health and wellbeing strategy: delivery plan 2023-2025 on Tuesday. The 57-page document commits to ‘expanding the range of digital therapies and resources available, providing free access to trustworthy mental health support at any time’.

It also said that by December 2024, Scottish Government and NHS boards will ‘undertake a rigorous evaluation of all Scottish Government-sponsored digital mental health products and establish data sharing agreements with all Boards to enable in-house analysis of completion rates and patient satisfaction with digital products.’