A Border mental health worker says they are afraid patients will die and the community will lose vital services, after Albury Wodonga Health has redeployed mental health clinicians.
In a Change Impact Statement provided to The Border Mail by the Health and Community Services Union, Albury Wodonga Health said it closed community care teams and its Benambra mental health community care unit in Wodonga earlier this year due to COVID-19.
But an AWH mental health worker, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect their job, said that COVID was being used as an excuse for shutting down the team, after failures of management and the Acute Community Intervention Service (ACIS) model.
"When the new model started at the beginning of COVID, ACIS was never fully staffed," the person said.
"People die in our area of work, but it's a lot easier to manage when you know that you've done all you can and you are in a supported environment.
"I can't rationalise why workers have been moved to other areas."
Albury Wodonga Health executive director for mental health Dr Lucie Shanahan said mental health clinicians had been redeployed and spread out to preserve the workforce in case of COVID-19 exposure, so patients would always be able to receive care.
"We haven't taken these measures because we are short staffed in a particular area," she said.
"Like many mental health areas we have staff shortages, I'm not going to pretend that we don't, but the key reason we have put these steps in place is to make sure that we do have ready access to our specialist clinicians as much as we possibly can."
Dr Shanahan said operations would return to normal as soon as possible in relation to COVID.
She said AWH was actively trying to recruit more mental health staff, but there was a shortage across the nation.
"We are trying to do the best that we can to support our workforce during these exceptionally challenging times," she said.
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The mental health worker said many staff had been taking sick and stress leave and the ACIS manager and about 12 other mental health workers had resigned, due to the huge demand on mental health services since COVID-19.
"The morale is very, very low," they said.
"Staff are having to go into other colleagues' rooms crying, overwhelmed, putting an enormous amount of pressure on our managers, burnt out, completely burnt out."
The worker said the system was at breaking point.
"I can't do this going into the New Year," they said.
"[I feel] sick, horrible.
"I'm very passionate about what I do and it's the people that I see that I do it for.
"I'm embarrassed and I've actually heard people say that they are embarrassed of this service."
The worker said single clinicians had been working with case loads of up to 40 acute clients, or a patient experiencing psychosis, mood disorders or suicidal ideation, which was far too many.
"The referrals that are coming through daily - we physically cannot keep up - we took 65 phone calls into triage in a 24 hour period, [before COVID] you could maybe sometimes get 10," they said.
"Just in this last week there's been a couple of clients for me who've been ringing and going, 'why is no one calling me back?' Message message message. 'I've been waiting to hear from someone, I was told someone would call me'.
"It's a very difficult time for us to be able to provide a good service, and you know that's what we want to do.
"But we can't do it, we can't maintain it, and we shouldn't have to leave a job that we're passionate about."
The worker said ultimately it was the patients and community who suffered.
"It's not a very good feeling going home, knowing that you've done the best you can, but that best isn't good enough," they said.
Dr Shanahan said no mental health service in Australia was able to cope with the demand at the moment.
"The Victorian Government instituted a royal commission into the mental health system in recognition of just how overwhelmed the mental health service and system is," she said.
"To say that the mental health system is broken is widely acknowledged in recent years."
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