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My daughter's four days "in hell"

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Jeannette Walsh thanked the cashier for her magazine and stepped out of the kiosk. Rounding the corner, she saw her 40-year-old daughter, Alison, bashing her head, again and again, against a brick wall of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

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“She seemed okay sitting there for a while and I said I’ll just nick in to the kiosk and get a magazine, because I thought that might give her something to look at when we went back,” Jeannette recalls.

“I came out and she wasn’t sitting on the fence where I left her.

“There’s a group of people standing around. There’s nurses and security guards. And she was banging her head against the brick wall of the hospital.

“When I called out to her she sort of stopped, but by then security guards had just about grabbed her under each arm anyway.

“She just wanted to get the voices out of her head.”

Alison was taken back to the emergency department cubicle she had entered, voluntarily, earlier that day. She was no longer a voluntary patient.

“I was taken to an other room and just cried, because I was so upset,” Jeannette says.

After half an hour, Jeannette was allowed to see her daughter, who was shackled to the bed by her wrists and ankles.

“She was in this big dirty room… I call it ‘the drunk tank’, because it’s a dirty room with just a bed in it and dirty walls and you’re locked in at both doors.

“By this time, she’s very distressed and not knowing what she’s doing.”

Alison was suffering an episode of psychosis – but there were still four days between this episode and her receiving proper psychiatric treatment.

Staff told Jeannette they could not get Alison into the hospital’s mental health ward, because no beds were available there.

“They always say there’s no beds … I’ve never heard of anyone that goes straight into a ward,” she says.

“I know carers whose people are in there for a  week. They always say there’s no beds.

“If I go in with a heart attack, I’m going to be put into the cardiac ward probably within half a day.

“(Alison) is also a chronic asthmatic … She’s been in for her asthma – well, within 2 hours she was in a respiratory ward for asthma.

“Mental health is the lowest form of illness in the health department’s hierarchy.”

Alison’s episode was in May.

After four days in “the drunk room” – where the lights must be left on 24 hours a day – Alison was moved to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s Cramond mental health ward.

She would be there for the next six months.

Jeannette is no doctor, but she knows her daughter. She has cared for her illness since she developed schizophrenia at the age of 15.

She believes Alison’s stay at Cramond could have been limited to just weeks if she had received the timely psychiatric treatment she needed.

A significant announcement is expected on the issue from Health Minister Jack Snelling today.

It is likely to include new targets for SA Health with regard to mental health patients’ lengths of stay in emergency departments, an advisory body and a new governance structure.

Over the past three financial years, waiting times for mental health patients who present to emergency departments have increased from 8.8 hours to 12.4 hours – according to the annual report the Chief Psychiatrist of South Australia.

During the same period, waiting times for general admission patients have stayed relatively stable – 4.4 hours in 2011-12, 4.4 hours in 2012-13, 4.6 hours in 2013-14.

“When a person is very unwell, it’s making them more unwell even just being in emergency,” says Jeannette.

“It’s just not good. And it’s not good for the staff in emergency (or) for other people with heart attacks and accidents.

“They’re trying to cope with everything, and you’ve got these mentally ill people that are getting worse, and you’ve got security guards on each (mental health patient).

“You shouldn’t have to be there for days on end … it doesn’t help anyone at all.”

Jeannette does not blame emergency staff, who she says “do the best they can in dire circumstances”.

According to the Chief Psychiatrist’s report, 711 mental health patients in South Australia were restrained or secluded 1,649 times during the  past financial year – including 139 patients in hospital emergency departments.

Most of the incidents of restraint involved mechanical restraints (47 per cent) then physical restraints (12 per cent) then sedation (5 per cent).

Six years ago, Alison suffered a similar psychotic episode as the one that occurred this year.

She was kept in a cubicle for four days – two of which were spent shackled to a bed.

“It’s put this fear in her head of being locked in anywhere,” Jeannette says.

“Since when she was in there for four days and two days shackled six years ago, she has never wanted to be locked in.

“She won’t lock the toilet door, she won’t lock the bathroom door.

“She hasn’t gone in a lift since then. She won’t go on a plane. She’s got a sister in Melbourne – we used to go on a plane sometimes to see her. She won’t go (any more).”

Jeannette says she has been a constant advocate for change since the original incident six years ago.

“I’ve been on Channel 2 about this, I’ve been on Radio National; I’ve talked on conferences here and interstate, and it never changes,” she says.

“I had people come out from the Health Department saying, oh we’ll stop this, let alone it’d be half a day from now on.

“Six years later, it’s worse. They’re in there for up to a week.”

Jeannette describes the experience of her daughter’s treatment in the hospital system as being like “hell”.

“Why does this happen? Is it necessary?

“I hope something is done about it, now.”

Yesterday, InDaily reported Health Minister Jack Snelling was conducting an urgent internal review into the problem.

“I’ve had a series of meetings, including with clinicians and leaders in the field, about what we can do to reduce the time some mental health patients are spending in our EDs,” Snelling said.

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Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

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