‘Our ward is not set up for young people’: 13-year-old admitted to Canberra’s adult mental health unit

Children as young as 13 continue to be admitted to the Canberra Hospital Adult Mental Health Unit because the opening of a dedicated acute case facility for young people was delayed until 2023.

A health worker at the unit, who spoke to ABC on condition of anonymity, said they and other staff members had serious concerns when a 13-year-old boy was admitted last week.

“My first thought was full of swear words,” they said.

“I couldn’t believe this had happened.

“Our room is not prepared for young people.”

The health worker said they were particularly concerned because the unit’s staff have no pediatric training or equipment to treat a child in an emergency.

With thousands of students returning to schools across the ACT at the same time the 13-year-old boy was admitted, the worker said they were also concerned the boy would not have access to hospital school or a learning device.

Admitting children at AMHU is ‘rare’

The exterior of a building.
Canberra Hospital Adult Mental Health Unit is not set up for children, but will admit them if they are a danger to themselves or others.(ABC News: Elise Scott)

The Adult Mental Health Unit was designed as a therapeutic setting for acute treatment with opportunities to plan for engagement with other mental health teams and the broader mental health sector.

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Canberra Health Services Mental Health Executive Director Katrina Rea said children and young people with mental health problems are usually treated on a pediatric ward; however, there is a provision in the AMHU model of care for children 12 years and older to be temporarily admitted when needed. it is the “safest and most adequate attention to the circumstances”.

“Specialized AMHU facilities would provide the most suitable environment initially in such a case.

“The design of the Adult Mental Health Unit allows these young people to be cared for in a ‘suite’-like setting, away from other patients.

“Once it is safe and appropriate to do so, a young person in this situation will be transferred to a pediatric ward or discharged to their usual place of residence or alternative community support service.

“Multidisciplinary outreach teams from other parts of the health service visit AMHU consumers when appropriate and as needed.

“However, all AMHU nurses have general nursing training and are equipped to provide safe care to patients, regardless of age.”

Concerns about adequate pediatric care

A close-up of a doctor writing down a patient's symptoms on a form with a stethoscope hanging from his neck.A close-up of a doctor writing down a patient's symptoms on a form with a stethoscope hanging from his neck.
Bianca Rossetti of the Mental Health Consumer Network says AMHU staff may not be trained to offer adequate support to teens. (Rawpixel: Felix)

ACT Mental Health Consumer Network board member Paul Thompson visited the facility as part of his work on committees that advise on mental health treatment.

Thompson said it’s an appropriate facility for adults, but when it comes to children “it’s not ideal.”

“I mean the general cohort is 20 and up, so it’s not a question of what programs are there, I think it’s a question of safety,” he said.

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“I have a lot of respect for the leadership of the facility and I think they try to do the best they can.”

Bianca Rossetti, a member of the Mental Health Consumers Network, who herself has had experience with mental health treatment, said the facility itself is not the only factor.

“It’s not just the location, but what treatment team this young person, or future young people, is going to access if they’re in the Adult Mental Health Unit.” Mrs. Rossetti said.

“Will they have access to a pediatric psychiatrist, will they have access to pediatric mental health nurses, will they have access to occupational therapists that are specific and social workers that are specific in building those connections that young people need?”

Ms. Rossetti has been advising on the creation of an Adolescent Mental Health Unit for the ACT, which she believes would be the “missing step” in answering those questions.

A stand-alone facility had previously been promised to be completed by the end of 2021, but after consultation with stakeholders it was decided to co-locate it with other adolescent services within Centenary Hospital.

The unit is now not expected to be completed until June 2023.

‘The Adult Mental Health Unit is no place for a child’

A woman with curly blonde hair stands outside the ACT Assembly.A woman with curly blonde hair stands outside the ACT Assembly.
Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson says ACT has adequate facilities for adolescent mental health, but Bianca Rossetti of the Mental Health Consumer Network disagrees.(ABC News: Antoinette Radford)

“Current services for adolescent mental health are down in Shell Harbor or Sydney and my concern is that they are either maxed out or just COVID, inaccessible,” said Ms Rosetti.

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But Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson insists ACT has a wide range of mental health services and treatment methods that are accessible regardless of the patient’s age.

“We will always need the flexibility within our mental health services to be able to meet individual needs.

“It’s something where we don’t necessarily know what could come in the future, but we do know that we need the ability to provide things like personalized nursing care for someone who is particularly vulnerable and put them in a vulnerable person suite.”

Opposition health spokeswoman Leanne Castley said a dedicated adolescent mental health center was long overdue.

“We all know that the Adult Mental Health Unit is no place for a child.

“The fact that the government has been in power for 20 years and there is no drive for our children to be taken care of safely, it just shows negligence, it shows a complete failure on the part of the government.”

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