Canberra Liberals health spokesperson Vikki Dunne says the Territory’s mental health system should be referred to the ACT Human Rights Commission (HRC) to investigate serious failings and systemic issues within the sector.
In a motion moved in the ACT Legislative Assembly on Thursday (4 June), Ms Dunne said that The Canberra Hospital’s (TCH) adult mental health unit (AMHU) was operating at above capacity between 2017 and 2019 and that the funding of four additional beds in the ward is providing little relief to the capacity problem.
She said the ACT’s mental health system is increasingly struggling to cope with demand.
“Many patients reportedly leave the public mental health system worse off than when they went in. Our dedicated and hardworking mental health staff are being assaulted at record rates,” Mrs Dunne said.
“Out of concern for the wellbeing of both patients and mental health staff, it is very important that these ongoing issues are appropriately examined by the ACT HRC.”
Ms Dunne wants the HRC to compile a preliminary report into the system by the last sitting day in August and a final report by the end of the first sitting week in February 2021.
The motion is highly critical of Mental Health Minister Shane Rattenbury, noting that the average waiting time for the AMHU was longer than 16 hours, 140 per cent higher than the average of the previous five years.
Only 43 per cent of mental health presentations to the emergency department were seen on time in 2018-19, the lowest in Australia, Mrs Dunne said.
However, Minister Rattenbury says there is no need for another review or report into the ACT’s mental health system, noting that there have been at least eight reviews undertaken or underway in the mental health portfolio since 2017.
Mr Rattenbury told the Assembly that despite an almost 140 per cent increase in mental health presentations to the emergency department at THC since 2014-15, there has been a 42 per cent reduction in waiting time for people with a mental illness. For presentations with serious mental illness, there has been a 37 per cent decrease, he said.
“I am concerned that Mrs Dunne has underpinned her entire motion on the mechanics of the AMHU,” Mr Rattenbury told the Assembly in response to Ms Dunne.
“I must remind Mrs Dunne and the Canberra Liberals that the AMHU is just one single component of the entire mental health system and focusing so directly on it would be doing a disservice to improving the broader mental health system.
“I by no means wish to stand here today and suggest everything is perfect, but I have been steadfast and determined to deliver on the promises of the Government to improve mental health services for Canberrans.”
Mr Rattenbury also previously told a parliamentary inquiry that Canberra was struggling from a shortage of psychiatrists and simply entering a bidding war to bring more into the ACT would not be sustainable.
Three patients with complex and severe mental illnesses had to be transferred interstate for specialist care that is not available in the ACT since April 2019. Two were referred by community teams and one from a hospital liaison team. This does not include people who may travel across the border for private mental health care.
A Territory-wide Mental Health Management Committee, established in May 2019, has also been tasked to obtain clearer data, establish shared training and education for staff, and identify infrastructure to support patient flow and need across the whole of the Territory, Mr Rattenbury said.
The Review of Children and Young People released this year by the ACT Office for Mental Health and Wellbeing found that half of the ACT’s young people and children say they have problems accessing mental health services and affording mental health services.
A second Headspace, targeting mental wellbeing in children and adolescents, was set to open in Canberra by the end of the year but may be delayed because of the pandemic.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health and needs help, please contact Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support service on 13 11 14.