Mental Health Front & Centre (Canberra Doctor - September 2017)

Mental Health Front and Centre

AMA (ACT) President, Prof Steve Robson and ACT Chair of the Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, A/Prof Jeff Looi, have met with Mental Health Minister, Shane Rattenbury, to lay out their shared concerns about the state of the psychiatry workforce and other mental health issues in the ACT.

The meeting was both cordial and constructive, with the Minister listening carefully to the issues raised and demonstrating a willingness to engage.  While mental health is a new portfolio brought into existence after the last ACT election at the initiative of the ACT Greens, several other Australian jurisdictions have established specific mental health portfolio responsibilities.

Psychiatric Workforce

The major issue raised with the Minister was both the immediate and medium term future of the psychiatric workforce in the ACT. 

AMA (ACT) believes there are ongoing and serious difficulties in the ACT’s public sector psychiatric workforce. The situation is currently being held together by the use of locums and the considerable goodwill and dedication of local consultants and psychiatric trainees, together with mental health service management. 

Away from the immediate crisis, the use of ‘Area of Need’ appointments and locums continues to be the primary means of dealing with the shorter and medium term issues in public sector psychiatric staff recruitment – a situation AMA (ACT) would like to see rectified.

The private sector workforce, while not in a similar short-term crisis, is still deficient in consultant psychiatrists and particularly so when it comes to the child and adolescent subspecialty.  As discussed with the Minister, the lack of local private sector workforce is puzzling given the many attractive features working in Canberra provides to medical practitioners. 

Workforce Plan Needed

While there seems to be little alternative to the public sector’s use of Area of Need appointments and locums in the short term, AMA (ACT) believes it should be an urgent priority to draft a comprehensive workforce plan for the combined ACT public and private sector psychiatric workforce, both specialist and trainee.  The workforce plan should emphasise recruitment and retention and specifically consider safety, working conditions and incentives to work and remain in the ACT.

It would make sense, given similar work previously undertaken by the RANZCP for the Victorian Government, if the College was involved in the ACT workforce plan, at least in relation to the public sector workforce.

Mental Health Advisory Council

AMA (ACT) and the RANZCP both expressed concern over the lack of either a psychiatrist or GP on the Council.  The Minister responded by stating that he recognized the need for suitable input to the Council from medical practitioners.

Further discussions with the Minister are to be held in order to determine how it is – whether through co-opting or other means – input from medical practitioners can be made available to the Council.

Office of Mental Health

The Minister has recently released a ‘conversation starter’ that seeks the views of stakeholders on the role and function of the new Office of Mental Health.  The ‘conversation starter’ is designed to seek the views of stakeholders on the role and function of the new Officer of Mental Health.

All in all, a constructive meeting with Minister Rattenbury. Now the hard work starts.