ACU report warns of mental health care crisis

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Nurse taking notes.

Study finds staff shortages contributing to mental health nurses crisis

A new report by Australian Catholic University has found that mental health nurses are suffering high levels of workplace stress made worse by ongoing staff shortages and acutely unwell patients.

The study, published in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, found high rates of ongoing stress had implications for the current chronic national shortage and were contributing to it becoming a full-blown crisis.

Mental health nurses are the largest group providing clinical care in the mental health field, yet a projected under supply of 18,500 is forecast by 2030.

Lead author Professor Kim Foster said mental health nurses face some of the most significant workplace stress in the country and work needed to be done to support and retain them.

“The biggest stresses were in regards to mental health services themselves, things such as staff shortages and lack of experienced staff to manage patient care of very acutely unwell patients,” she said.

“After that verbal and physical aggression [from patients] was another source of stress but really it was the feeling of overworked and not enough time to do what they have to do.

“There are two main issues here, mental health nurses are the largest workforce group in mental health, and provide most of the clinical care. And their stress is related to people leaving the workforce. So if we don’t do anything about that we will lose a large part of the workforce and that will have an impact on patient care and quality of care.”

Grant awarded to trial workplace resilience program

To help address the problem, Prof Foster has been awarded a $317,500 Australian Research Council Linkage grant to conduct a large-scale trial of a workplace resilience program with nurses at NorthWestern Mental Health in Melbourne.

Mike Wilk [name changed to protect privacy], a mental health nurse who works in the emergency department of a large inner Sydney hospital, said that while he applauded the new program trial he hoped that solutions would not only focus on individual resilience.

Blurred out photo of a hospital waiting room.

Burnout, fatigue and even compassion fatigue were normal responses to systemic problems and a wider culture of blame when patients managed to self-harm or suicide even while under the care of services, he said.

“[Self-care and resilience programs] will help up to a point, but we have to be careful not to say to clinicians “just build up your resilience and it’s going to be ok,” he said.

“You have to give a lot of yourself to be effective as a nurse who is compassionate and caring, and doing that on a day-to-day basis can be quite draining when there is an organisation willing to churn through staff, when nurses continually feel undervalued and there are not enough bodies on the ground to cover roster gaps.

“Adding to the problem is that nurses can be quite hard on themselves and on each other.”

Professor Foster agreed that the problem can only worsen if various causes of workplace stress are not directly addressed.

“It can certainly impact them in their personal lives and we have got some evidence to say that it can impact their own mental health and wellbeing,” she said.