Mental health wards at capacity across Canberra hospitals as demand surges

Dominic Giannini 29 May 2020 26
Exterior of emergency department and ambulances at Calvary Hospital.

Mental health wards at Canberra Hospital and Calvary Hospital are at full capacity following recent increases in mental health admissions. Photo: File.

Canberra Hospital’s Adult Mental Health Unit has recently been running at full occupancy. Similar in-patient levels have been recorded at Calvary Hospital, the ACT Government’s Select Committee on the COVID-19 pandemic response has heard.

Since the start of this year, there has been a 10 per cent increase in admissions across the ACT’s acute mental health services and a 14 per cent jump in demand for high-dependency beds compared to the second half of 2019, executive director of the Mental Health, Justice Health and Alcohol and Drug Service, Karen Grace, told the committee.

“We have seen an increase in presentations of people who are the high end of being unwell, which is a significant increase in what we would ordinarily see,” she said.

“There has [also] been a significant increase in patients with comorbid drug and alcohol abuse issues.”

An ACT Government spokesperson said beds may be full, but no-one is being turned away from acute beds and patients are being moved around on a daily basis. Eight extra beds have also been called in at both Canberra Hospital and Calvary Hospital.

ACT Minister for Mental Health Shane Rattenbury said five of these extra beds are being opened at the Older Persons Mental Health Service at Calvary Hospital, in Bruce, to cope with increased demand.

“The mental health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic are something this government, and indeed across the Commonwealth, have been alive to,” he said.

“We have also experienced demand pressure as a result of the COVID-19 period.”

However, mental health advocacy groups previously told the Inquiry into Youth Mental Health in the ACT that there is a gap within Canberra’s mental health services when dealing with some severe cases.

Executive director of the ACT Youth Coalition, Dr Justin Barker, says Canberra’s health system is being forced to triage its most critical cases. Severe mental health cases are being referred back to community organisations which do not have the capacity to deal with them.

Dr Barker told the committee that only when patients only enter the mental health system when they are on the precipice of a crisis.

“People at suicide risk and having florid psychosis are being asked to go back home,” he said. “It is incredibly discouraging being told [you are] not severe enough for help.”

The saturated service has a trickle-on effect. When patients are told their illness is not acute enough, they are pushed back into the community sector and may not ask for help again in the future, said Dr Barker. He added that the system is suboptimal as young people are being introduced into the system in a very ad-hoc way.

The CEO of Mental Illness Education ACT (MIEACT), Heidi Prowse, said more work needs to be done to connect with young people prior to them being in an acute mental health situation.

While MIEACT programs cover 83 per cent of ACT secondary schools, and will cover 100 per cent during the next 12 months, there are only trial mental health programs in school classrooms for year-three and year-four students.

As most programs start at the age of 12, there is concern that young students aged eight to 12 who are at risk of developing mental health issues are being forced to face the situation before they get the chance to build resilience or learn about what they can do, said Ms Prowse.

However, Mental Health, Justice Health and Alcohol and Drug Service CEO Ms Grace said that despite the increase in mental health presentations from younger people, telehealth services and more technological engagement are not a panacea for reaching young people.

“What we saw initially with young people was a good uptake of telehealth, but over time, during the past month or so, there has been a level of disengagement with young people not answering the phone when their clinical manager is calling them,” said Ms Grace. “But that is anecdotal.”

If you or anyone you know needs mental health support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24-hour crisis support. In an emergency, call triple-zero (000).

Dedicated mental health and wellbeing resources are also available through ACT Health’s COVID-19 website.


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26 Responses to Mental health wards at capacity across Canberra hospitals as demand surges
Chelle Belle Chelle Belle 3:18 pm 04 Jun 20

I agree the vacant hospital should be used for addressing low to medium mental health issues. Problem is getting the psychiatrists, psychologists and allied health. Surely there must be a plan given the additional funds put into this recently

Rauny Worm Rauny Worm 1:03 pm 03 Jun 20

It is a sad tragedy that there are such limited hospital based therapy options for mental illness..for young people there are still absolutely none!!

Tiffany Roy Tiffany Roy 8:19 pm 02 Jun 20

Canberra hospital's mental health ward is awful.

    Tiffany Roy Tiffany Roy 8:11 am 03 Jun 20

    Kurt Neist lol probably not any that are public.

    But we need to be doing better.

Gary Hatcliffe Gary Hatcliffe 7:51 pm 02 Jun 20

Wow! 8 beds. Aren't we lucky....

Bianca Rossetti Bianca Rossetti 10:05 pm 01 Jun 20

Is this a surprise to anyone ??

    Jarrod Male Jarrod Male 2:55 pm 02 Jun 20

    Bianca Rossetti...no surprise and only going to get worse as not enough focus, resources, facilities or even decent legislation in regards to youth. Is a tough job and have tremendous respect for those working within the mental health area. They just need better framework to support them.

    Bianca Rossetti Bianca Rossetti 7:26 pm 02 Jun 20

    Jarrod Male let's hope the new adolescent unit and day service helps youths in the area.. sadly I think it is not finished for several years but at least it is being built

    Jarrod Male Jarrod Male 7:29 pm 02 Jun 20

    Bianca Rossetti ....let's hope. My understanding was that it has been on the table for over 10 years now. The legislation around youth mental health also needs to be improved so that such a facility can be utilised properly.

    Anne Christoff Frampton Anne Christoff Frampton 4:55 am 03 Jun 20

    Jarrod Male I had to end up taking a family member to the adolescent unit in Sydney. It was the only way I could get any help.

    Jarrod Male Jarrod Male 5:30 am 03 Jun 20

    Anne Christoff Frampton We didn't know we could do that at the time. Although getting mine there would of been a challenge in itself. Hope things have improved for you and your family member.

    Anne Christoff Frampton Anne Christoff Frampton 8:23 am 03 Jun 20

    Jarrod Male it was very challenging but worth it.

Jarrod Male Jarrod Male 9:56 pm 01 Jun 20

The overflow patients they just said you'll be ok and sent them home promissing an aggressive community based treatment. Patients just receive a phone call two days later asking if they still felt like suiciding.

    Anne Christoff Frampton Anne Christoff Frampton 4:49 am 03 Jun 20

    Jarrod Male yes so true. Sometimes not even that.

    Kay Jones Kay Jones 2:30 pm 03 Jun 20

    Jarrod Male yes. We have been through it. It's not good enough

    Jarrod Male Jarrod Male 2:40 pm 03 Jun 20

    Kay Jones Anne Christoff Frampton....I'm guessing like myself you have heard of many similar experiences from other parents. My boy unfortunately didn't get the help he needed at the time and has now ended up in the penal system. I believe decent intervention when he was 15 may have made a difference. I shoulder a lot of the blame though and it's heartbreaking even though he made his own choices.

    Kay Jones Kay Jones 2:41 pm 03 Jun 20

    Jarrod Male yes it's very hard

    Anne Christoff Frampton Anne Christoff Frampton 4:21 pm 03 Jun 20

    Jarrod Male please don’t blame yourself.teenagers needing help can be very stubborn and refuse any help and what are we as parents supposed to do. I can’t say much on a public page but if it hadn’t been for a private psychiatrist putting a court order in a place for him to be treated in Sydney, I don’t know what I would have done. This was after years and months of not getting any help from the system here and having to wait at least six months to get private treatment when it’s needed immediately. Now it’s ten years later and the help in Canberra is still appalling.

Sue Skinner Sue Skinner 9:46 pm 01 Jun 20

Newsflash: ACT Mental Health services are ALWAYS at capacity!

    Bianca Rossetti Bianca Rossetti 10:05 pm 01 Jun 20

    Sue Skinner agreed!!! Put money into community services.. discharges are a joke as people just dont get the care they need so a back log is created 😟 plus focus on not sending people to the hospital but manage crisis in the community

Dinora Collins Dinora Collins 9:39 pm 01 Jun 20

Well not surprising really

David Berkelmans David Berkelmans 6:20 pm 01 Jun 20

There’s an empty hospital at Garran Oval

    Marnie Hodsdon Marnie Hodsdon 6:58 pm 01 Jun 20

    David Berkelmans needs professional staff in it not just a building.

    Jerome Boland Jerome Boland 8:14 pm 01 Jun 20

    Also that building is setup as an ER type facility. It's likely not suited to be used as a Mental Health Facility

    Stephanie Teagle Stephanie Teagle 7:05 pm 02 Jun 20

    I was just about to comment "if only there was an empty hospital somewhere..." COVID has shown us that anything can be done. And done quickly.

    David Berkelmans David Berkelmans 7:22 pm 02 Jun 20

    Stephanie Teagle agreed, where there’s a will they can find the money

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