A lack of beds at Canberra Hospital’s mental health ward is putting an enormous strain on its emergency department, according to the Shadow Health Minister Vicki Dunne, with one person on the waiting list for over 130 days.
The Dhulwa Mental Health Unit’s rehabilitation program has been at 100 per cent capacity since June, with both of its units being over-capacity on two separate occasions in September.
All 17 of the inpatient beds are currently in use across both units, according to a ministerial advisory note obtained under Freedom of Information laws by the Canberra Liberals.
Dhulwa is a 25-bed facility that provides mental health care for adults who are, or are likely to become, caught up in the criminal justice system. The facility is split into two categories, an acute unit and a rehabilitation unit.
Mrs Dunne says these waiting times are unacceptable, with a detainee at Canberra’s prison, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, still waiting for a bed at the facility, despite being on the waiting list for over 130 days.
A second referral from another detainee was received on 27 August and is currently being considered by the Assessment and Administration Panel for admission, the advisory note says.
“The last thing inmates need is to wait for mental health treatment, especially coming on top of being denied healthcare in the early hours of the recent lockdown,” Mrs Dunne said.
“The Canberra Hospital’s adult mental health unit has been operating at or very near to 100 per cent capacity for at least a year, putting enormous pressure on the emergency department, as well as general wards and the long-suffering staff. Now we have learned that Dhulwa is also at capacity.”
Although Dhulwa is touted as a 25-bed facility, there are currently only seven rehabilitation beds, which have been at capacity since June, and 10 acute beds, while the remaining eight beds have not yet been commissioned.
“Another eight beds have not been commissioned because the facility is facing ‘workforce challenges’ described as ‘attraction and retention of senior clinical staff and specialist Forensic Psychiatrists’,” Mrs Dunne said.
Staffing in the mental health sector has been a point of contention between the Health Directorate and the Shadow Minister, who clashed with Chief Psychiatrist Dr Denise Riordan over a “chronic shortfall of psychiatrists” during parliamentary estimates.
Mrs Dunne drew upon a budget submission by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ ACT branch that said “there have been several reports of Canberra Hospital’s adult mental health unit forced to function with only one psychiatrist per shift, leading to burnout of doctors and putting the safety of consumers at risk”.
Dr Riordan denied these claims.
Ms Dunne also criticised the government for not having a dedicated adolescent mental health ward.
“The ACT’s mental health system is in crisis and Chief Minister Andrew Barr and his Mental Health Minister Shane Rattenbury have completely lost focus,” she said.
The government has committed to building a dedicated public adolescent inpatient unit which is set to be completed in the 2021-22 financial year after funds were put aside in the last budget to pay for the project.