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The right to better treatment

A new snapshot Australian survey of mental health consumers and carers indicates continuing difficulty in accessing care.

The lack of a specialist mental health nursing workforce in Australia continues to make it difficult, and frustrating, for consumers to access the appropriate mental health care, a new survey shows.

Mental health clients have a life expectancy of 18 to 20 years less than the general population, and this is largely related to significantly higher rates of physical illness.

This was unacceptable, said Kim Ryan, Australian College of Mental Health Nurses CEO.

“Mental health nurses play a critical role in addressing both the physical and mental health needs of consumers,” said Ryan.

“We will not be able to reduce these alarming statistics unless we have a nursing workforce with a solid foundation in and understanding of mental health,” said Ryan.

It is accepted that GPs address certain mental health conditions and know when to refer to a psychiatrist. The same system was needed in nursing, Ryan said.

In the snapshot survey, which explored consumer and carer perceptions of the mental health workforce and role of mental health nurses, 91.4 per cent said people with multiple health issues were rarely treated as a “whole person” in the health system.

The majority of the 114 respondents, 95.7 per cent, also agreed there were not enough mental health professionals working in local communities to meet the growing demand or need, with more than half experiencing trouble in accessing care for themselves, or the person they care for, in the past two years.

“There is no substitute for a mental health nurse to provide whole of person centred care, addressing both the mental and physical aspects of illness,” said Ryan.

“The public deserves access to this level of health care.”

This was supported in the survey’s findings, with one in three consumers ranking a mental health nurse as the most important person in helping with their mental health out of all of their personal and professional support networks.

One consumer commented that: “The mental health nurses connected my experience with that of others so that I feel my responses to my illness are ‘normal’ and understandable.”

“They are an essential bridge between consumer, psychiatrist and carer,” commented one carer.
Family was the second most important support after mental health nurses, with 28.3 per cent of consumers saying their family is the most important in helping with their mental health, followed by psychologist and psychiatrist in equal third place with 16 per cent.

Mental Health Nurse of the Year, Deborah Nelson, said that increasingly, mental health care professionals are seeing people with chronic physical health issues - such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity - and mental health problems.

“Death rates are 39 per cent higher in cancer patients who have received a diagnosis of depression,” said Nelson.

“A mental health nurse will work in collaboration with other health care professionals and in partnership with their patient to achieve optimum physical and mental wellbeing.

“We need to insist all nurses have appropriate education and clinical experience in mental health; we need to do it for our patients.”

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