Both sides of politics appear to have deferred a decision on funding a second mental health hospital until after the election despite renewed calls to build the long-awaited facility.
The Victorian Law Reform Commission has joined calls in urging the government to build the second secure facility for mentally ill offenders in a bid to keep the community safer.
With 116 beds, the Thomas Embling Hospital is the state’s only secure mental health centre to treat mentally ill people in the criminal justice system, as well as those who have been found not guilty due to a mental impairment. But the hospital, opened in 2000, has seen three deaths in three years, increased waiting lists, and the average length of stay stretch out to more than a month.
Mental health experts and the Health and Community Services Union have called for a second facility to be built since at least 2009 due to the rising demand.
The commission examined the issue and found building a medium-security mental health hospital would significantly help in treating inmates as they transition from living in a facility to being out in the community.
Currently, mentally ill offenders are discharged from Thomas Embling as soon as they are deemed to be low-risk and placed in the community. Those who then breach their supervision orders are returned to the high-security facility, potentially taking a bed away from a higher-risk patient.
“Establishing a medium-secure facility for people with mental illness would also allow resource-intensive services and facilities in a secure hospital environment to be directed to those most in need,” said the commission’s report.
But Premier Denis Napthine would not commit to funding the proposed project when asked about the commission’s recommendation.
“If those demands require further investment, they’ll be considered as part of the budgetary processes in the future,” he told reporters on Monday.
“We’re always considering where there are needs in our mental health system. There has been identified some issues in forensic mental health. We’ll continue to look at that and see what those needs are in the future.”
Dr Napthine said he was proud of the government’s record in funding mental health services – from more acute beds to community-based services across the state.
Mental Health Minister Mary Wooldridge said the new Ravenhall prison in Melbourne’s outer west would include funding for 75 mental health beds. “This is in stark contrast to the previous Labor government, who failed to recognise and plan for this need,” she said.
But opposition mental health spokesman Gavin Jennings said the government’s priorities have been wrong, with prison beds getting funding over the mentally ill.
“This has meant there are a significant number of prisoners with mental health issues that are not getting the care they need,” he said.
However, Mr Jennings would also not commit to funding the second facility. “The Law Reform Commission’s report is a substantial body of work and Labor will work through the recommendations if elected in November,” he said.
The commission also called for a dedicated facility for young offenders who are mentally ill, since children are housed at the Parkville Youth Justice Precinct, whether they are suffering from a mental illness or not.
“It is unacceptable that young people with a mental illness, intellectual disability or other cognitive impairment are being detained in custodial facilities that are not appropriate for meeting the needs of this vulnerable group of young people,” the report said.
The commission was told up to 10 children a day could benefit from being treated in a dedicated facility.
Victorians will go to the polls on November 29.
This article first appeared on ‘The Age‘ on 25 August 2014.