The mental patients no one cares about
By Richard Noone
From: The Daily Telegraph February 16, 2010 12:00AM
NSW HOSPITALS are being turned into dumping grounds for the mentally ill.
The situation has inflamed tense relations between frontline police, paramedics and hospital staff forced to deal with the constant influx.
Paramedics are reluctant to restrain and transport violent patients and hospitals refuse to admit them if they show signs of intoxication.
"I didn't sign up to arrest people," one paramedic said. "I didn't get into this job to be smacked in the mouth by a mental health patient."
Figures reveal that from January to November last year paramedics used medical restraints 128 times.
From January to December police responded to 22,926 mental health incidents, often having to baby-sit patients overnight in police custody cells which were not equipped to accommodate them.
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Latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures show 77,699 mental health patients went or were taken to NSW emergency departments, 43.5 per cent of the 178,595 mental patients presenting in Australia and more than twice that of any other state or territory.
But the figures, collected in 2006-07 and only released late last year, could be much worse.
Given a diagnosis is only reported in 72 per cent of all patients going to emergency, it is estimated the figure could be closer to 100,000.
Mental Health Council of Australia boss David Crosbie said of those presenting only about 21,000 were later admitted.
"So . . . what happens to the other people?" he said.
Most, he said, were sent away until they deteriorated to the point where:
*THEY were forced to return to hospital emergency points;
* THEY hurt themselves; or
* THEY committed a crime and ended up in jail where, according to NSW prison data, 80 per cent of inmates have a mental illness.
Mental health experts argue the alarming rise in these numbers reflects a glaring failure of the NSW mental health system.
They blame the Government of trying to play catch-up by ploughing billions of dollars into hospital-run psychiatric beds instead of investing in community-based residential care.
Community-based residential care employs trained on-site staff to rehabilitate, treat and care for patients for up to 24 hours a day.
Mr Crosbie said adequate community-based care - 30 beds per 100,000 people - could cut emergency visits by 40 per cent.
NSW announced a record $1.171 billion spend on mental health in 2009-10, trebling the state's mental health budget over the past 15 years.
But NSW Mental Health Consumer Advisory Group executive officer Karen Oakley said it was not just a case of the Government spending more money.
"We have become such a crisis-driven system that people usually only get seen during a crisis and at that point it's too late," she said.
At the same time, NSW Police figures show a huge rise in the number of incidents they attended involving the mentally ill - from 2882 in 2000 to 39,352 in 2007.
Anecdotal evidence suggested this figure had since fallen after mental health intervention teams were set up with officers who are specifically trained in mental illness.