Adolescent mental health facility in Canberra won’t be complete until 2023 while children as young as 13 are admitted to adult wards

Children as young as 13 years old continue to be admitted to Canberra Hospital’s Adult Mental Health Unit because the opening of a dedicated acute facility for young people has been pushed back to 2023.

A healthcare worker from the unit, who spoke to the ABC on condition of anonymity, said they and other staff had serious concerns when a 13-year-old adolescent was admitted last week.

“My first thought was filled with expletives,” they said.

“I could not believe that this had happened.

“Our ward is not set up for young people.”

The healthcare worker said they were particularly concerned that unit staff don’t have paediatric training or equipment to treat a child in the event of an emergency.

With thousands of students returning to schools across the ACT at the same time the 13-year-old was admitted, the worker said they were also concerned the child wouldn’t have access to the hospital school or a device for learning.

Admitting children to AMHU is ‘rare’

Adolescent mental health facility in Canberra won’t be complete until 2023 while children as young as 13 are admitted to adult wards
The Adult Mental Health Unit at the Canberra Hospital is not set up for children, but will admit them if they are a danger to themselves or others.(ABC News: Elise Scott)

The Adult Mental Health Unit was designed as a therapeutic setting for acute treatment with opportunities to plan to engage with other mental health teams and the broader mental health sector.

Canberra Health Services Mental Health executive director Katrina Rea said children and young people with mental health conditions are typically treated on a paediatric ward, however, there is a provision in the AMHU’s model of care for children aged 12 and older to be temporarily admitted when it is the “safest and most appropriate care in the circumstances.”

“The specialised facilities at AMHU would provide the most suitable environment initially in such a case.

“The layout of the Adult Mental Health Unit allows for these young people to be cared for in a ‘suite’-like environment away from other patients.

“Once it is safe and appropriate to do so, a young person in this situation will be moved to a paediatric ward or discharged to return to their usual place of residence or alternative community based support service.

“Multi-disciplinary in-reach teams from other parts of the health service visit AMHU consumers when appropriate and as required.

“However, all AMHU nurses have training in general nursing and are equipped to provide safe care for patients irrespective of age.”

Concerns for adequate paediatric care

A close-up shot of a doctor noting down symptoms of a patient on a form with a stethoscope hanging around his neck.
The Mental Health Consumer Network’s Bianca Rossetti says AMHU staff may not be trained to offer appropriate support to adolescents. (Rawpixel: Felix)

ACT Mental Health Consumer Network board member Paul Thompson has visited the facility as part of his work in committees advising on mental health treatment.

Mr Thompson said it’s an appropriate facility for adults, but when it comes to children “it’s not ideal”.

“I mean the general cohort is from 20s upward, so it’s not a question of what programs are there — I think it’s a question of safety,” he said.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the leadership of the facility and I think they try to do the best they can.”

Mental Health Consumer Network member Bianca Rossetti, who herself has lived experience with mental health treatment, said the facility itself isn’t the only factor

“It’s not just the location, but what treatment team is this youth – or future youths – going to access if they are in the Adult Mental Health Unit?” Ms Rossetti said.

“Will they have access to paediatric psychiatrist, will they have access to paediatric mental health nurses, will they have access to occupational therapists that are specific and social workers that are specific in building those connections that the youth needs?”

Ms Rossetti has been advising on the set-up of an Adolescent Mental Health Unit for the ACT, which she thinks would be the “missing step” in answering those questions.

A standalone facility had previously been promised for completion at the end of 2021 but after stakeholder consultation it was decided to instead co-locate it with other adolescent services within the Centenary Hospital.

Now the unit isn’t expected to be completed until June 2023.

‘The Adult Mental Health Unit is no place for a child’

A woman with curly blonde hair stands outside the ACT Assembly.
Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson says the ACT has suitable facilities for adolescent mental health, but Mental Health Consumer Network’s Bianca Rossetti disagrees.(ABC News: Antoinette Radford)

“Current services for adolescent mental health are down in Shell Harbour or Sydney and my concern is that they are either at capacity, or just with COVID – inaccessible,” Ms Rosetti said.

But Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson insists the ACT has a wide range of mental health services and methods of treatment that are accessible regardless of a patient’s age.

“We will always need the flexibility within our mental health services to be able to meet individual needs.

“It’s something where why might not necessarily know what might be coming in the future but we know that we need the capacity to provide things like one-on-one nursing care for someone who’s particularly vulnerable and to put them in a vulnerable person’s suite.”

Opposition health spokeswoman Leanne Castley said a dedicated adolescent mental health facility is long overdue.

“We all know the Adult Mental Health Unit is no place for a child.

“The fact that the government – they’ve been in power for 20 years and there is no unit for our children to be safely taken care of — it just shows neglect, it shows complete failure on the government’s behalf.”