5 February 2021

Safe Haven Cafes delayed as mental health waiting times continue to increase

| Dominic Giannini
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Exterior of emergency department at Canberra Hospital.

Less than 40 per cent of psychiatric presentations to ACT emergency departments were seen on time in 2018-2019. Photo: George Tsotsos.

The rollout of two Safe Haven Cafes in Canberra has been delayed despite a rise in the number and severity of mental health presentations across the ACT’s health services.

A suitable site for at least one of the cafes, where people who are experiencing mental health concerns or distress can go for support instead of a potentially intimidating emergency room, was supposed to be chosen in January.

An ACT Health spokesperson said the ACT Government is continuing to work towards finalising the location of the first cafe.

The delay comes in light of the Productivity Commission’s most recent Report on Government Services (ROGS) revealing that less than 40 per cent of Canberrans who went to the emergency department for psychiatric care in 2018-2019 were seen within the appropriate time frame, well below the national average of 65 per cent.

The latest figures reveal a decrease in the timeliness of accessing emergency mental health care, from 60 per cent of people being seen on time two years prior.

The ACT Health spokesperson said “the government has made a number of investments and introduced several strategies to help reduce waiting times in the emergency department, and to increase capacity across the system … in the 18 months since the time covered in the latest ROGS publication”.

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

These measures include a dedicated consultant psychiatrist during business hours, the establishment of a Police Force, Ambulance and Clinician Emergency Response (PACER) team to respond to mental health emergencies in the community, and the expansion of the Home Assessment and Acute Response Team (HAART) which provides home-based mental health crisis assessment, short-term treatment and support, and referrals.

The strain on the system from psychiatric presentations became evident in December 2020 when an overwhelming number of people with mental health problems forced Canberra Hospital into a partial ambulance bypass.

A renewed focus on community based mental health care and services has been touted by the ACT Government as a partial solution to reducing the strain on emergency departments.

The importance of community focused mental health care was also revealed in the ROGS reports, which revealed that around three in every four psychiatric hospitalisations in the ACT are followed up with community mental health care within the next seven days.

READ MORE Mental health wards at capacity across Canberra hospitals as demand surges

The ACT Health spokesperson said that improvements in emergency department waiting times will “start to be seen in coming years as the effects of these initiatives are realised”.

Nearly $350,000 was put aside for the Safe Haven Cafes by the ACT Government in April 2020 as part of its COVID-19 Mental Health Support Package.

If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline’s crisis support line, which is available 24/7, on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call triple zero (000).

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