ACT Health has seen an increase in patients presenting for emergency mental health treatment at Canberra Hospital since the outbreak of coronavirus, at what was already an overstretched department.
The most recent government data revealed the ACT already had the longest median emergency department wait times for mental health patients of any jurisdiction, prior to COVID-19.
On top of increased emergency presentations, ACT Health confirmed it anticipated greater need for mental health services as a result of the pandemic.
Australian Medical Association ACT president Antonio Di Dio said people weren't presenting at emergency departments because they were feeling a little bit anxious or depressed.
"It's things like major depression with suicidality or severe anxiety with a person who can't breathe," Dr Di Dio said.
"Or a possible psychotic episode when they're having a break with reality and they're hearing voices or they're having delusions and their family takes them urgently to emergency because they're terrified that they might hurt themselves or another person."
Dr Di Dio said the best place for people in this situation wasn't the emergency department to begin with.
"The best place is a dedicated psychiatric emergency unit. Unfortunately those places are very hard to find," he said.
In the 2019-20 financial year to February 29, 2020, the average number of patients admitted each day to the Adult Mental Health Unit at Canberra Hospital was 3.1, compared to 2.4 in 2018-19.
In May 2020, an additional five beds were funded at Calvary Public Hospital in Bruce to meet a surge demand.
There are now 97 beds for patients with mental health problems in public hospitals in the ACT, to cater to the 200,000 Canberrans expected to experience mental health concerns in their lifetimes, based on national statistics.
A Productivity Commission draft report scheduled for release in the coming weeks estimated mental ill-health and suicide were costing Australia up to $180 billion per year and treatment and services were not meeting community expectations.
The ACT government said it was responding to the increasing mental health needs of the community, as was demonstrated by the $4.5 million COVID-19 Mental Health Support Package announced by the minister for mental health in May.
It said the package included a number of initiatives to reduce demand on emergency departments and acute mental health services, including $720,000 to expand the Police, Ambulance, Clinician Emergency Response (PACER) service.
Introduced in December 2019, the integrated emergency services teams provide assessments of patients experiencing mental health episodes, outside of the emergency department.
On average, the teams will attend five mental health cases in each 10-hour shift in Canberra.
After just four months of operation, the initiative was expanded from four days a week to seven.
Dr Di Dio said what the patients really needed was for those first responders to not just be plentiful but to have access to beds to transport them to.
"Even if we had twice as many doctors, even if we had twice as many psychiatrists in Canberra, that wouldn't fix the problem," he said.
"The problem is, where do we put the patients?"
He said five additional beds at Calvary was a good start but any general practitioner or family member of someone experiencing acute mental health problems would attest more was required.
The government spokesperson said $500,000 of the package would go to the Mental Health Foundation to provide additional accommodation to people exiting acute mental health inpatient units, who do not have suitable accommodation once they are discharged.
"This initiative is expected to contribute to reducing bed block and ensuring that people are receiving the appropriate care to meet their needs," the spokesperson said.
- Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800; beyondblue 1300 224 636; 1800-RESPECT 1800 737 732.