Nurses at Canberra’s Dhulwa Mental Health Unit have reported more than 100 assaults by patients in the past six months – a period in which occupational violence at the facility has increased.
But the ACT Government appears unwilling to launch a formal inquiry into the matter.
In Question Time earlier this week, Minister for Mental Health Emma Davidson responded to a question from the Opposition about whether she would commence an inquiry by saying the union representative had “[her] number my so, call [her] maybe”.
“I would very much like to have that conversation with the union and I would hope they would be happy to engage in conversation with me soon,” she said.
According to the union, one nurse described the situation at Dhulwa as “like being sent into the killing fields” while others claimed they no longer felt safe attending work.
Reports of “significant injuries, including a broken arm, broken nose and broken fingers” were also made by a nurse who worked at the facility.
The nurses’ union called for the ACT Government to conduct an urgent inquiry into the unit, opened in 2016 to focus on rehabilitating patients who had come into contact with the criminal justice system.
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) ACT branch secretary Matthew Daniel raised serious concerns about the facility’s “completely rotten” culture, which he said pitted patient rights against the rights of nurses.
“Dhulwa nurses report being directed not to disengage or withdraw from unsafe situations involving violent and aggressive patients and instructions to allow patients to vandalise public property,” Mr Daniel said.
“Most worryingly, the government appears to be blaming nurses for the level of occupational violence at Dhulwa.”
Mr Daniel said nurses had long been pleading with the government to keep them safe at work but it seemed nothing had changed since the union first raised the issues in 2018.
He warned a catastrophic incident – a serious injury or even fatality – was imminent.
“The government seems content to stand by while poor governance, confused patient management, inconsistent and opaque systems of work, appalling HR practices and toxic relationships have created an environment where occupational violence has become business as usual at Dhulwa,” he said.
Opposition spokeperson for Health Leanne Castley agreed an inquiry into the facility was long overdue.
Ms Castley said she was shocked during a visit to Dhulwa some weeks ago after finding five nurses off work at one time due to physical violence they had been subjected to in the workplace.
“It’s clear that workplace violence has become the norm. It’s unacceptable and our nurses deserve more,” she said.
“They are afraid to go to work and they are feeling unsafe.”
While not suggesting action beyond an inquiry, she said the government should be held to account for unsafe situations as any workplace would be.
The ACT Government confirmed it had already conducted multiple reviews of Dhulwa.
Minister for Mental Health Emma Davidson said she understood the difficulties faced by mental health nurses.
“It’s really important for everyone to have a safe and healthy workplace… we want to work with these nurses and with their representatives,” she said.
Ms Davidson would not confirm if an inquiry into Dhulwa would be launched. Instead, she was willing to work with the union and nurses.
She recently invited a group of nurses from the mental health unit to her office and has since engaged with Canberra Health Services.
Ms Davidson claimed reports of violent incidents had largely been declining at the ACT’s mental health facilities in recent years. But there had been “specific circumstances” in February this year which led to an “exceptional” increase.
Executive director of Nursing Midwifery at Canberra Health Services (CHS) Karen Grace said the unit was aware of 83 incidents of violence in the last six months at Dhulwa. The majority of these took place in February.
The minister did not identify when she became aware of the escalating incidents of violence at Dhulwa.