HERALD'S OPINION: Mental health facilities in the Hunter under the spotlight

A HUNTER New England Local Health District list of mental health facilities lists more than 30 separate state-run units or organisations in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie alone.

Yet as we have heard at the inquest of teenager Ahlia Raftery, these services are apparently so stretched that this gifted but troubled teenager was unable to gain admission to hospital, despite having rung for help.

And once Ms Raftery did get help, her care was compromised to the point where she was able to take her own life in her room at the Mater Mental Health Centre’s psychiatric intensive care unit, despite being a patient who was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes.

Acknowledging the work loads on mental health staff, the coroner has recommended the state government “give consideration” to lifting staff-to-patient ratios at the Mater facility. Hunter Health had submitted there was no evidentiary basis to make such a finding, but common sense dictates that the greater the staff-to-patient ratio, the better the quality of care is likely to be.

Although local health districts have considerable discretion as to how they spend their budgetary allocations, the ultimate responsibility for adequate care belongs to the state government, which distributes the funds to the various regions.

In this light, the $7.5 million allocated to provide a new site in Charlestown for the Lake Macquarie Mental Health Service is a welcome development.

And it is not only the size of the funding cake that needs to be considered. Arguments can always be made for one particular part of the health system over another, but there seems little doubt that mental health – especially for younger people – is a growing area of concern, demanding more money, and more practitioners to counter what some would say was an epidemic of mental health problems.

Anecdotally, it appears that too many people with mental illness are still falling through the cracks, as the death of Bernie Sessions – Mayfield’s “Man in the Doorway” – showed this week. Official suicide rates in Australia are well down on their peak in the late 1990s but are climbing again. The more money that flows into battling our mental health burden, the more lives that are likely to be saved.

And not only saved, but turned around. 

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