Mental Health Minister Tanya Davies with Lismore MP Thomas George toured the Lismore Base Hospital Mental Health Unit earlier this year.
Mental Health Minister Tanya Davies with Lismore MP Thomas George toured the Lismore Base Hospital Mental Health Unit earlier this year. Claudia Jambor

Mental health unit like a 'prison'

A PRISON-like, alienating environment with a "punitive atmosphere" shouldn't be synonymous with a medical facility.

Sadly, this was the description of the Lismore Base Hospital's adult mental health inpatient unit by a relative of a patient who was admitted last year.

The woman, who couldn't be named, was one of about a dozen who attended a public forum yesterday at the Lismore Workers Club to discuss health care delivery and management. The forum was part of an on-going inquiry by the NSW Parliament Public Accounts Committee into the state's health system.

As regular visitor to the unit while her relative was in care, the woman said there were a host of concerns during her loved one's care.

Although some staff at the unit "couldn't do enough for you", she said most were distant, there was a lack in continuity of care and losing her relative's clothes, which she said she had clearly labelled, was undignified for her relative.

The concerned relative was relived to hear Lismore MP Thomas George confirm refurbishments were near-completion at the facility to create a more constructive environment for patients and staff.

Health professionals, including those from NSW Midwives and Nurses Association, agreed a bad culture had accumulated at the unit due to what they said was under-resourcing of staff, a lack of training and low morale.

The on-going tensions at the unit was made clear to the committee by the workers and others, who agreed a major shake up of the mental health system was needed.

Issues with staffing, a lack of hands-on-training and low morale were also discussed as major issues at Lismore Base Hospital and throughout the district.

In his 26 years of nursing, Lismore branch manager of the association Gil Wilson said the forum provided an outlet to vent flaws in the health system beyond the local health district managers.

But he was sceptical the inquiry would bring about any concrete changes to resolve on-going pressures that nurses face on the ground.

"I would love to be proven wrong," he said.

Committee chairman, Coogee MP Bruce Notley-Smith, said the two-hour discussion was "a fascinating and insightful exchange of ideas and experiences".

Shocking findings from a Coronial Inquest earlier this year into the death of Lismore mother-of-two Miriam Merten at the Lismore unit sparked an extension of the already established inquiry to include mental health care delivery.

Mr Notley-Smith said Ms Merten's death was the catalyst for the extension.

"It seemed only sensible that we should come to Lismore and hear from people first hand," he said.

A separate independent review into seclusion, restraint and observation in the New South Wales mental health facilities was also launched in conjunction with the extension of the parliamentary inquiry.