Nurses save mental health unit

Minister overrules management on restructure.

A determined stand by nurses has stopped NSW Health from severely downgrading a child and adolescent mental health unit.
NSWNA members told Hunter New England Area management they would not accept a decision to convert the Nexus facility in Newcastle from an in-patient facility to a day unit.

Nor would they accept any reduction in the size of the 12-bed unit attached to John Hunter hospital.

After representations from the NSWNA, the Minister Assisting the Minister for Mental Health Cherie Burton stepped in to overrule management.

Opened three years ago, the Nexus facility accounts for one third of beds available in NSW for children and adolescents with acute mental illness.

Its future was thrown into doubt in April when three of its four psychiatrists resigned in a 10-day period. They included two professors of psychiatry.

RN Luke Wiseman, president of the NSWNA branch at Nexus, said management claimed the trio resigned for personal reasons. ‘We are really not sure of the actual reason though we suspect lack of support from area health was the real cause of their departure,’ Luke said.

Staff were called to a meeting with area management and told that as a result of the resignations, the facility would be restructured – in the worst-case scenario, turned into a day program. In the meantime, the number of beds would drop from 12 to nine, while the maximum patient age would drop from 18 to 17.

‘We were appalled by the news and told management we would not accept it,’ Luke said. ‘We challenged management to utilise every resource they had to keep Nexus as an in-patient facility with the existing number of beds. We have succeeded in achieving that goal.’
Luke said Nexus is the only NSW unit that offers kindergarten to Year 12 age cover, and the only one that combines medical and psychiatric management of involuntary patients with eating disorders.

‘No other unit in NSW manages the breadth of diagnostic disorders from childhood dementia through to psychosis in forensic patients as the Nexus unit has done under the direction of Professor Ken Nunn,’ Luke said.

‘We have children who are very ill, suffering from severe depression and psychosis, and have nowhere else to go.

‘Our patients have included homicidal children who have tried to take their parents’ lives and kids who have attempted suicide. We take in kids from a wide area, from Sydney to the Queensland border and as far west as Burke.’

Luke said job losses were not an issue for the 32 nurses employed at the unit.

‘Management told us that under their plan, there would be no loss of jobs though some nurses would be reassigned to other mental health jobs in the area. Our main concern was to fight to preserve the unit as a service to the kids who really need help.’

Luke thanked NSWNA officials for their support to the nurses’ stand. ‘They were a brilliant help to us,’ he said.

‘After the union got a meeting with the minister, the minister directed that under no circumstances would the unit be downgraded or suffer a loss of beds.

‘That was a great relief to all the staff.’

Luke said the department was actively seeking to recruit replacement psychiatrists.

He said the Nexus unit has enjoyed strong community support from groups such as the Toronto Probus Club, Centrelink staff at Adamstown, TV channel NBN3, and entertainers such as Marcia Hines, who visits each Christmas.