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Source: Association of Salaried Medical Specialists

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists says mental health services in almost every region are at breaking point due to overcrowding, chronic staffing shortages, and the rising number of acute cases driven by methamphetamine, and now Covid-19.

Staff in Wellington Hospital’s mental health ward have told Radio New Zealand (Wellington Hospital mental health unit unsafe for staff, patients) that the unit is at crisis point.

ASMS Executive Director Sarah Dalton says it’s a situation repeated in mental health units up and down the country.

“Almost all DHBs are struggling with a shortage of inpatient mental health beds and understaffing.  We’ve heard cases in which patients have had to be sedated in emergency departments and forced to wait several hours before moving onto a ward”.

ASMS members report the patients they are seeing have more complex needs, there are not enough allocated beds to meet rising acute demand, and wards are overcrowded – pushing up the risk and level of abuse and assault of health workers.

“Add a spike in cases due to Covid and continuing high levels of methamphetamine abuse, and it’s a perfect storm,” Sarah Dalton says.

There is a serious shortage of psychiatrists and ASMS research shows they experience very high levels of burnout.

Sarah Dalton says there are vacancies everywhere.

“Some mental health services, particularly in smaller regions are running two or three psychiatrists down. Many of our psychiatrists come from overseas but often they don’t stay because of the difficulties they encounter working in such a stressed system.”

She adds “it has also been disappointing to find out that Dunedin’s new hospital building will not include provision for acute mental health.” ASMS understands there are currently 15 mental health business cases for new builds queued up at the Ministry of Health.

Priority for mental health spending has gone into the community and last year’s Mental Health Inquiry underplayed the need for more resources to go into hospital services for those with severe need. The amount of funding ring-fenced for mental health services has also not kept up with the demands of our population.

Sarah Dalton says, “mental health is at the pointy end of health underfunding and staff and patients are being put at risk”.