Psychiatrists say the ACT's mental health system is on the brink of an all out crisis with years of warnings about staffing and bed shortages falling on deaf ears.
Chair of the ACT branch of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Jeffrey Looi said he was deeply concerned about the state of mental healthcare in the territory.
He said short staffing had led to limited supervision of trainees and excessive overtime, with mental health staff forced to work without appropriate rest time.
Staff were regularly denied annual and study leave and had poor work-life balance, he said.
"This under-resourcing means that mental health services cannot recruit, retain and develop and healthcare workforce that can provide comprehensive care for the most severely mentally ill," he said.
Professor Looi said the branch had spoken to Mental Health Minister Shane Rattenbury over the past three years about extensive problems.
He said while the minister seemed receptive to their concerns, nothing had changed in the system.
"We are moving closer and closer to crisis point," Professor Looi said.
"It needs a very significant investment but also immediate action in workforce problems.The staff are trying the best they can under the circumstances but we can't continue.
"People have resigned and we're likely to see more resignations in the future. It's just a question of how long until we reach that tipping point which we've been warning is approaching."
The adult mental health unit at Canberra Hospital has been running at or near capacity for more than a year. Professor Looi said this was the main reason for unacceptably long stays by mental health patients in Canberra's emergency departments.
He said there was a desperate need to include more psychiatrists in the higher level decision making at Canberra Hospitals.
"There is disengagement between administrators and the realities of clinical service, more needs to be done to reduce excessive regulation which is hindering psychiatrists' ability to do their jobs," he said.
Professor Looi said the government needed to invest further in both acute and community services, with neither appropriately resourced with psychiatrists or beds.
He said while the branch supported the use of locums in the short term, they were not a permanent solution as they don't allow continuity of care for patients.
In an ACT budget submission, Professor Looi said the ACT should aim to have 41 beds (both acute and community based) per 100,000. It is estimated there are currently less than 20 per 100,000 beds in the territory.
Mental Health Minister Shane Rattenbury was asked whether bed numbers should be increased to the rates suggested by the college. A spokesman for the minister did not give a direct answer to that question.
"Canberra Health Services is pursuing the development of a range of options to address acute mental health demand," he said.
"[The service] has worked to reduce bed block and ensure patients are transferred to an appropriate care setting. They continually look for ways to improve the quality and breadth of service provided the community.
"In response to current and ongoing mental health demand pressures across the Territory, the minister has requested that a range of options be developed including associated models of care.
"Work is underway on service wide workforce plan for Mental Health, including the medical workforce to better understand the requirements of the division.
"This work will include benchmarking against similar services."