Patients confined as fight drags on
July 29, 2007
MENTAL-health patients are being locked in seclusion for up to 24 hours a day at Box Hill Hospital as a dispute between health authorities and psychiatric nurses over staff shortages deepens.
Health and Community Services Union state secretary Lloyd Williams said the hospital’s 25-bed adult psychiatric unit, Upton House, was struggling to cope with a lack of nursing staff.
He said the unit was regularly locked because it had to operate on minimum staffing levels.
He said individual patients might be kept in seclusion — confined in a locked room on their own — for lengthy periods because of staffing problems.
“But I would hope not,” Mr Williams said. “I would hope that management aren’t making those sort of decisions.”
The father of one patient said his son, 31, diagnosed with schizophrenia, had been held in seclusion for nearly two weeks and given two five-minute smoking breaks a day outside.
The Scoresby father said his son, who cannot be named, was forced to stay in a small room, go to the toilet in a tray, eat and be force-fed medication there. He said his son started to hallucinate because of the conditions.
“It’s a pretty pathetic state of affairs,” the father said.
He said his son was not a convicted criminal, but someone who needed proper medical care.
He said his son was receiving nursing and medical care “more akin to an 18th-century mental asylum” and was being denied human contact, books, TV, internet access, and writing material.
“This is a gross breach of every human right and civil liberty enjoyed in a modern democracy,” he said.
The father said his son would have greater freedom detained under an anti-terrorism act than the Mental Health Act.
He asked how health authorities were spending millions in government funding, because it was not spent on patient care.
The State Government announced earlier this month that Eastern Health, which includes Box Hill Hospital, will get 9.3 per cent more funding in 2007-08, taking its budget to $374 million.
Eastern Health adult mental-health program manager Ben Kelly said seclusion was one of a number of treatment strategies under the Mental Health Act.
“We wouldn’t use seclusion to address staffing issues,” Mr Kelly said. “It would be grossly inappropriate and unacceptable.
“Seclusion is not about punishment, it’s a treatment strategy governed under the Mental Health Act.
“Everything is reported to the chief psychiatrist of Victoria on a monthly basis in terms of seclusion usage,” Mr Kelly said.
“Any decisions relating to the use of seclusion is made on clinical grounds by our consultant psychiatrists.
“There can be times when seclusion is used for longer periods but it really depends on the circumstances of individual patients.”
The dispute over staffing and a lack of protection for staff at Box Hill and Maroondah hospitals is before the Industrial Relations Commission.