Opinion — 20 January 2015

ASHLEY HALL: New figures show people with mental illnesses in state care are being unnecessarily isolated and restrained.That’s certainly the view of the chair of the national mental health commission professor Allan Fels. Professor Fels says children and adolescents are the most likely to be physically restrained. Alison Branley with this story.

ALISON BRANLEY: Deeon Watts’ son is just seven-years-old, but a mental illness means he can be a danger to himself and others.

DEEON WATTS: The knife incident was afternoon care. He got so frustrated with himself that he grabbed a knife on his sister’s throat and said he wanted to kill her and himself.

ALISON BRANLEY: Despite her sons challenges, Ms Watts said she’s never locked him in a room or held him down. So she was distressed to learn those things had happened when he was at school.

DEEON WATTS: Got a phone call, got to the school and opened the office door and here’s my son outside on his bottom leaning back on his hands and the teacher had hold of his legs. And she had full hold.

ALISON BRANLEY: Ms Watt says locking her son in a room during an outburst only makes him worse.

DEEON WATTS: He’s screaming his head off and he’s bashing on the walls and the door. And, they’ve locked him in a room. SONY DSC

ALISON BRANLEY: Ms Watts’ concerns are echoed by the Mental Health Commission. Chairman professor Allan Fels says one of the main problems with seclusion and restraint is that it just doesn’t work.

ALLAN FELS: It’s quite a poor method. It’s not therapeutic; it doesn’t cure people of anything, doesn’t fix them up. It just restrains them and it probably makes them worse in most instances
Of course it’s an intrusion on basic human rights of people.

ALISON BRANLEY: Professor Fels is particularly concerned about the use of such measures on children.

ALLAN FELS: It’s the area where the amount of restraint is the biggest actually – children and adolescents – and it’s obvious that the system is not well balanced or working very well when that has to happen. This is the area where we need to emphasise early intervention and prevention activities.

ALISON BRANLEY: Professor Fels says around the country, the use of seclusion and restraint for people with mental illness is still too high. New data shows one in 20 mental health admissions to a public hospital includes a seclusion incident, which is when patients are locked in a room by themselves. It’s not confined to mental health wards and can be used in hospitals, schools, prisons and ambulances.

ALLAN FELS: The data on this is extremely poor and mental health services have been a little bit careful, secretive even, about the extent to which it is used. But it is remarkable high the amount of it.

ALISON BRANLEY: But staff and patient groups say eradicating seclusion and restraint is unrealistic. Mental health advocate Ian Knabel has spent a lot of time visiting mental health wards.

IAN KNABEL: I haven’t seen it been overused or abused, but there’s certainly been cases where I’ve seen it as a necessary tool to control a situation or a person. The vast majority of the people I’ve dealt with in the ward – the nurses, the doctors, the support personnel – are there doing what is an extremely difficult job with people in a very fragile state mentally.  It needs to be a safe environment for everyone.

ASHLEY HALL: Mental health advocate Ian Knable, ending that report from Alison Branley.

This article first appeared AM ABC, 19 January 2015.

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