ACT Minister for Mental Health Shane Rattenbury has flagged reforms to the Mental Health Act after ACT paramedics have recorded more than a fourfold increase in the number of emergency detentions in one year.
Mr Rattenbury said he has asked chief psychiatrist Denise Riordan and Emergency Services Commissioner Georgeina Whelan to immediately investigate the unexplained increase in emergency apprehensions made by members of the ACT Ambulance Service (ACTAS).
A spokesperson from the Canberra Health Services (CHS) said they are working closely with ACT Ambulance to ensure that emergency services are responding to mental health crises in an appropriate way.
“The Health Directorate, CHS and the Chief Psychiatrist are currently investigating opportunities for reform to ensure this section of the Act is invoked as appropriate, and ways ACTAS and CHS services can collaborate to provide care to people experiencing mental health crisis,” they said in a statement.
“This will also consider whether any policy or legislative adjustments are needed.”
Laws introduced in March 2016 gave ACT paramedics emergency detention powers if a person with a mental disorder or mental illness “has attempted or is likely to attempt suicide or to inflict serious harm on themselves or another person; or … the person’s condition will deteriorate within three days to such an extent that they would require immediate treatment, care or support”.
Anyone who is subject to emergency detention under the Act must be transported to an approved facility, such as the Canberra Hospital Emergency Department, for assessment by an approved medical officer.
There has been a 60 per cent increase in emergency apprehensions on patients with mental health problems in the last year according to the Chief Psychiatrist’s annual report, with paramedics making 1,171 detentions in the 2018-19 financial year.
In previous years, 171 and 273 people were apprehended by paramedics, with last year’s total apprehensions totalling 1,271, marking a 430 per cent increase in emergency detentions by paramedics in 2018-19.
This diversion, coupled with an exponential increase in the emergency detention of people with mental illnesses has led to the inundation of Canberra Hospital’s emergency room. The hospital has admitted that it doesn’t have enough psychiatric beds to meet the demand, inflicting more stress on waiting times within the already resource-stretched department.
The CHS says it is working on a multi-faceted approach in order to reduce the number of patients who end up in emergency departments.
“We are also working extensively to set up the Police, Ambulance and Clinician Early Response (PACER) model of care.,” the CHS statement says.
“The model will see police, ambulance paramedics and mental health clinicians come together to provide a multidisciplinary response for the safe assessment and treatment of people experiencing acute mental health episodes,” it continues.
“It is designed to better support in-situ mental health assessment, treatment and care and is anticipated to reduce front-line service demands on emergency services and reduce presentations to hospital emergency departments.”
The annual report also reveals a steady increase in the number of emergency detentions authorised for up to three days, as well as a steady increase in the number of 11-day extensions being granted. Proportionally, there has been a slight increase in the granting of these extensions from 43 per cent and 44 per cent in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial years, to 47 per cent in the last two years.
One-third of these extension orders required involuntary treatment, care and support via a psychiatric treatment order.
Mental health funding was at the centre of the Barr government’s latest budget, expanding operating hours of mental health consultation services at the Canberra Hospital, opening a specialist clinic for eating disorders and establishing an electroconvulsive therapy service to treat depression.
The budget also included funding for four full-time school psychologists and one administrative support worker to help tackle and prevent mental illness among students.