Calls for support for mental health nurses

drunk patient strikes out at hospital staff

Concern over violence towards nurses in the ACT has escalated, particularly for those working in the mental health sector.

Minister for Mental Health Shane Rattenbury, under questioning by Shadow Minister for Health Vicki Dunne, confirmed there were 340 incidents of assault against medical staff between January 2017 and June 2018; 129 of which occurred in the operative areas of Mental Health, Justice Health and Alcohol and Drug Services, with nurses the most affected.

Minister Rattenbury said the area of mental health is a “challenging work environment”, citing the issue as “high on my priority list” with emphasis on mental health nursing.

“Our job is to make sure it’s as safe as possible for our staff and for the consumers and that our staff are not being assaulted,” Minister Rattenbury said, in response to reports of a recent alleged assault of a nurse at the Adult Mental Health Unit at the Canberra Hospital.

Matthew Daniel, Secretary of the ACT Branch of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), said the problem of assaults on nurses is particularly prevalent in the mental health space in Canberra. Mr Daniel cited inadequate data collection by ACT Health, inadequate training being provided to nurses in the space and a lack of clarity about what’s being done as some of the major concerns.

“These are not new issues. Nurses that work in these areas are well aware of the greater risk environment that they work in. The problem that I see, and that members tell me, is there’s not a responsiveness or proactive management of that risk.

“We did our own survey of our mental health nurses – of our membership – and we found out that 95% [of members who responded] had been assaulted or witnessed an assault.

“We’ve been raising issues [with ACT Health] for many years – from the time that the Adult Mental Health Unit opened at Canberra Hospital, way back then – and the responses have never changed.”

Mr Daniel said strategies to improve safety as used in other jurisdictions, including security vigilance through CCTV, screening patients and visitors and the use of detector dogs for drugs, could all be explored by ACT Health.

Minister Rattenbury said a Nurse Safety Strategy is currently being developed across all of ACT Health, with particular emphasis on mental health nursing staff.

“The primary way to deal with violence is through the clinical approach to people; risk assessment, medication, management of how much interaction people have with staff and other patients. They’re all the things that should be there in the first place to avoid these incidents, and security staff are there as a backup.”

Mr Daniel said the Strategy is an “important piece of work”, but one that will need to be accompanied by a “culture of acknowledgement of the problems”.

“That’s where the first problem lies; whether the executives who have responsibility for leading these things acknowledge the problems and then are prepared to tackle them how they need to be tackled. That’s all about culture.”

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