14 August 2020

Inquiry finds adolescent mental health services need urgent reform

| Dominic Giannini
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A new mental health report tabled in the Assembly has handed down 66 recommendations related to youth and adolescent services in the ACT. Photo: File.

The ACT needs more school psychologists and youth workers, better access to mental health services for students and a concrete timeline for the completion of the Adolescent Mental Health Unit at the Centenary Hospital, a new report has found.

The measures form part of 66 recommendations handed down in a parliamentary report into youth mental health in the ACT. It highlights the need for significant mental health reform predominately in the ACT education, disability and youth criminal justice sectors.

The committee heard that there is only one psychiatrist who is child and adolescent trained working at the eating disorders clinical service in Woden, and the lone psychiatrist only works one day a week.

The lack of specialised support in the ACT was described as “far from satisfactory”.

“Unless you have a psych who is particularly interested in eating disorders and support around that, it is very difficult to get specialised support, unless you have money to pay for a dietitian,” one young person who required help for an eating disorder told the inquiry.

The lack of specialised services in the ACT also forced PJ Anderson to travel to Goulburn and Bowral for help after waiting more than a year for professional support through the public health system.

READ MORE PJ’s wait highlights ongoing shortage of mental health support in the ACT

Evidence given regarding the lack of support in the Territory led to the committee recommending a greater focus on access to services in schools to help mitigate the issue, after PJ said she just needed someone to sit down with and get everything off her chest, but was not afforded the opportunity to do so.

PJ Anderson

PJ Anderson is forced to travel to Bowral and Goulburn for specialised mental healthcare. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Mental health training for teachers and principals, the reinstatement of the National School Chaplaincy Program in Government schools, improved access to digital mental health check-ups, anytime mental health support for students and financial support for families who have to travel interstate have all been recommended.

Expanded drug rehabilitation services and more education for Child and Youth Protection Services in handling and understanding the needs of autistic youth were also recommended in the report following evidence that autistic youth have been turned away from mental health services.

“Routinely, autistic youth who present with anxiety, trauma or depression are denied mental health services for those conditions because of their autism,” the inquiry heard.

“In the past, [the] Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service had a strong interest in autism but now the service excludes many, possibly all known, patients known to be autistic. Many autistic youths with mental illness have nowhere else to go to get the mental health services they need.

“It seems this is a staff decision rather than an actual policy.”

The recommendations come off the back of an ACT Government report that found half of the ACT’s young people and children say they have problems accessing mental health services and affording mental health services, while over a third said stigma had impeded their ability to get help.

READ MORE READ MORE: New report says half of ACT’s youth struggle with mental health access, affordability

It was also recommended that the ACT Government should publish the timeline for the completion date of the planned public adolescent mental health ward before the Assembly’s last sitting day (27 August).

The public adolescent mental health ward is scheduled to open in 2022 when the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children expansion is due to be completed. At present, young people are admitted to the pediatric ward at Canberra Hospital, the adult psychiatric ward or sent interstate for treatment.

The full report can be accessed here.

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