First look inside the ACT's new secure mental health unit
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First look inside the ACT's new secure mental health unit

Dhulwa is the Ngunnawal word for honeysuckle, and Canberra's Indigenous elders are hoping its healing properties will be transferred to the new mental heath unit of the same name.

Construction will finish at the end of next month on the ACT's first secure mental health facility, after years of lobbying from magistrates, lawyers and mental health advocates.

Health minister Simon Corbell looks over the Dhulwa Mental Health Unit, on Mugga Lane in Symonston. Dhulwa means honeysuckle in the Ngunnawal language.

Health minister Simon Corbell looks over the Dhulwa Mental Health Unit, on Mugga Lane in Symonston. Dhulwa means honeysuckle in the Ngunnawal language.

Photo: Katie Burgess

The first residents are expected to move into the Dhulwa Mental Health Unit next year, with ACT Health Minister Simon Corbell describing the $40 million facility as the "missing link" between the ACT's criminal justice and health systems.

"For a long time we have been missing the capacity to accommodate people with serious mental health problems who have been engaged in the criminal justice system and we have had to accommodate people with serious mental health concerns in facilities that weren't really purpose-built to care for them," Mr Corbell said.

Hydrostatic glass, that changes from opaque to clear when an electric current pulses through it, will allow staff to check on patients.

Hydrostatic glass, that changes from opaque to clear when an electric current pulses through it, will allow staff to check on patients.

Photo: Katie Burgess
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"This facility really fixes that, it provides a dedicated capability for people who need care in a supervised and secure way whilst they are being managed through the criminal justice system or alternatively, for [who] for reasons of mental incapacity cannot be accommodated in the mainstream prison facilities."

About 50 extra health and security staff are currently being recruited to operate the facility on Mugga Lane in Symonston, which will include 10 acute beds and 15 rehabilitation beds.

The yet-to-be-finished unit looks more like Canberra Hospital than the Alexander Maconochie Centre, but fringed with maximum-security fencing.

The unit takes in three wings, each named for the native plants of the same colour - Lomadra for green, Mallee for purple and Cassia for yellow.

An acute room in the new Dhulwa Mental Health unit.

An acute room in the new Dhulwa Mental Health unit.

Photo: Katie Burgess

Inside the acute rooms, there are no CCTV cameras however a hydrostatic glass plane in the door - glass that changes from opaque to clear when an electric current pulses through it - will allow staff to check on the welfare of patients.

Residents will also be able to access a light and airy day room, a multi-faith prayer room, a computer room for online learning and a visitor garden.

A bathroom in an acute room in the new Dhulwa Mental Health Unit. There's no bathroom door or traditional tap fixtures as the room is designed to be as safe as possible.

A bathroom in an acute room in the new Dhulwa Mental Health Unit. There's no bathroom door or traditional tap fixtures as the room is designed to be as safe as possible.

Photo: Katie Burgess

Mr Corbell said they drew on the design of other such units interstate to ensure the facility was humane and safe.

"Safety when it comes to the design of the facility is paramount. Obviously people at this facility will pose challenges around issues of self-harm and we need to make sure the facility is designed to manage that and the staff are trained in the appropriate procedures to manage that," he said.

Honey is a natural healing agent and we hope the word brings comfort to the people staying here."

Roslyn Brown, United Ngunnawal Elders Council

"Clearly the important thing is it's designed in a way that's humane [and] that provides good opportunities for rehabilitation and recovery, often from very acute episodes of mental health."

Roslyn Brown, co-chair of the United Ngunnawal Elders Council, said there was a "high" need for such a facility within the ACT and region.

"People shouldn't be punished for having mental health problems, it's about caring and healing and having good quality support," Ms Brown said.

"We hope it'll be good, not only for Ngunnawal people and the wider Aboriginal community, but our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters. Honey is a natural healing agent and we hope the word brings comfort to the people staying here."

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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