21 February 2024

Canberra Liberals slam man's escape from mental health unit another 'failure'; initial review finds procedure was followed

| Claire Fenwicke
Adult Mental Health Unit

It’s believed a man who was subject to a Section 309 court order escaped through a window of the Adult Mental Health Unit at the Canberra Hospital. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

An initial review into the escape of a man from Canberra Hospital’s Adult Mental Health Unit (AMHU) has found procedures were followed and that the incident wasn’t preventable.

An ACT Policing alert was put out for Jessie Gould after the 32-year-old managed to abscond from the facility through a window on Sunday (18 February) night.

Shadow Mental Health Minister Ed Cocks said the incident had “concerning echoes” of issues identified in the recent Chief Psychiatrist report into leave arrangements for people found not guilty of a crime because of mental impairment.

Mr Cocks pointed out the review found there needed to be a better system to evaluate a person’s risk both to themselves and the community.

“It looks like, again, that’s been a key consideration that hasn’t factored in this time,” he said.

“The [Mental Health] Minister [Emma Davidson] also needs to explain why this individual was not being assessed in the secure mental health facility. Why did it once again take so long to alert the community? Was there at any stage any consideration of the potential safety risks to the community of the individual?”

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It’s understood Mr Gould had been ordered by the ACT Magistrates Court to undergo a mental health assessment.

This can happen under Section 309 of the Mental Health Act and usually occurs at the Canberra Hospital. This act also allows the courts to order someone to undergo treatment or care.

A person under this order can be transported from the courts by either Corrective Services or ACT Policing, and then they’re handed into the custody of Canberra Health Services (CHS).

Section 309 is noted when someone comes into CHS’s care, but the specifics – such as charges – are not unless the accusations relate to alleged violent crimes.

CHS executive director of mental health, justice health, and drug and alcohol services, Katie McKenzie, explained assessments under Section 309 vary, but people would initially come through the hospital’s emergency department for an initial assessment by the mental health team.

“A vast majority of people at that point are then returned to court proceedings,” she said.

“Some people, though, might require additional assessment or an immediate period of treatment and care, so at that point, the person may transfer to an admission with our acute mental health unit.”

While Mr Gould would have undergone this initial assessment, it could not be disclosed if he had been determined to need further assessment or had been admitted for treatment.

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The AMHU has 40 beds and accepts both voluntary and involuntary patients.

It is not a secure facility like the Dhulwa Mental Health Facility, but a closed one. This means it has security measures for involuntary patients – such as secured doors and windows – but is not a prison.

“It is, at its core, a treatment and care facility for people who have acute mental health needs,” Ms McKenzie said.

“People with mental illness, on the whole, do not pose a risk to community safety. People with mental illness should not be seen as unsafe.”

Ms McKenzie said an initial review had already been undertaken into the incident, which is standard procedure.

“According to our own policies and processes, there was a system in place and the staff who were involved with this incident followed that system,” she said.

“The initial review hasn’t found it was preventable.”

A more in-depth review will be completed in the coming weeks.

Adult Mental Health Unit

The Adult Mental Health Unit is a ‘closed’ facility at the Canberra Hospital. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

In the meantime, Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson has slammed the Opposition for stoking fear in the community.

“Unlike Mr Cocks, I wait for the facts and make informed decisions about what needs to change to prevent issues from occurring again,” she said.

“Mr Cocks did not ask my office for information about this incident, nor has he discussed with my office ways to improve Canberra’s mental health system. I genuinely can’t recall an occasion where he has put anything proactive forward.”

She also accused Mr Cocks of politicising a person’s mental health needs.

It’s understood Mr Cocks has sought a briefing with Ms Davidson but hadn’t done so before putting out a statement or addressing media.

He fired back at Ms Davidson, accusing her of “hiding” behind “obscure parts of legislation” to avoid giving the community tangible answers about what has happened in both this and previous incidents.

“I’m disappointed that instead of coming out and engaging in the issue, she’s chosen to come out and attack,” Mr Cocks said.

“She knows that these are complex issues, and at the same time, we have seen problem after problem, failure after failure, under her watch.

“The longer the Minister persists in hiding details behind technicalities, the more it will undermine trust in Canberra’s mental health system.”

The Health Records (Privacy and Access) Act 1997 prevents the discussion of a person’s private health details.

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