Standalone inquiry of state's mental health facilities called for after death at Shellharbour Hospital

Urgent inquiry needed: The death of a 49-year-old male patient at Shellharbour's Mirrabook mental health unit on May 4 has sparked calls for a statewide investigation of facilities.
Urgent inquiry needed: The death of a 49-year-old male patient at Shellharbour's Mirrabook mental health unit on May 4 has sparked calls for a statewide investigation of facilities.

The distraught family of Port Kembla man Nikola Nastovski are seeking answers after his death at Shellharbour Hospital’s mental health unit earlier this month.

The 49-year-old’s “unexpected’’ death on May 4 at the Mirrabook facility is under investigation by the local health district and police who will prepare a report for the coroner.

Two staff have been stood down over the incident, which has also sparked calls for a ‘standalone’ inquiry into mental health facilities across the state.

Labor’s mental health spokeswoman Tania Mihailuk said any inquiry needed to look at staffing levels, and listen to those who’d experienced the system.

Read more: Children kept in isolation for up to 38 hours in NSW psychiatric units

“We need an urgent parliamentary inquiry examining the level of resourcing and capacity of our state’s mental health facilities to ensure that these breaches of patient care are not systemic,’’ she said.

“It is imperative that a standalone inquiry be commissioned with terms of references specifically aimed at enabling mentally ill patients, their families, carers, clinicians and stakeholders, an opportunity to share their lived experiences of mental health units in NSW.’’

Ms Mihailuk said the last parliamentary inquiry into the capacity of NSW mental health facilities was in 2001.

‘’The community needs assurances that NSW’s mental health facilities are adequately resourced, accountable and have the capacity of treating mentally ill patients with a high standard of care.’’

Last week NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard asked for a review of the policy and practice of seclusion, restraints and observations across the state’s mental health system after horrific footage emerged of a patient’s death at a Lismore facility.

Mr Hazzard also said the government would ask the current Legislative Council inquiry into the Management of Health Care Delivery in NSW to reopen its submissions to allow mental health care to be addressed.

On Wednesday, after hearing of Mr Nastovski’s death, Parliamentary Secretary for the Illawarra Gareth Ward backed those calls for mental health to be included in the wider inquiry.

‘’The death of any patient under any circumstances is a tragedy. My condolences are with the family at this extraordinarily difficult time.’’ 

‘You are treated as if you don’t matter’ – former patient speaks out

A former patient of Shellharbour Hospital’s Mirrabook mental health facility has spoken out about her experiences after the death of another patient.

The Illawarra woman, who did not wish to be named, said she was a patient at the unit on a few occasions between October 2015 and September 2016.

She claimed observation practices – believed to be at the centre of the investigation into the recent death – were not always adhered to.

‘’Nurses of a night time check on patients with a flashlight through a small glass window of the doors. They don't go in the rooms at all,’’ she said.

“I took an overdose while I was in Mirrabook. Luckily I sought help. A nurse told me if I didn’t seek help when I did I wouldn’t of made it. Another nurse laughed and said ‘just leave her be, she will sleep it off’.

‘’If I never sought help I may not be here today as nurses would have used their flashlight to see me and assume I was sleeping.’’ 

Read more: Shellharbour Hospital's mental health unit patient speaks of 'appalling' treatment

Most of the nurses were lovely, she added, but it was the few who ‘’were cold’’ or who would ‘’laugh at you or ignore’’ that left their mark.

‘’It is not a very pleasant place. You are treated as if you don’t matter because you have mental health problems,’’ she said. 

“Your voice isn't heard because how could someone with mental health issues possibly know what they are talking about?’’

Similar themes appeared in reader’s comments on the Mercury’s Facebook page in reaction to the initial article on the man’s death this week, with many also talking about the need for additional staffing.

However health district chief executive Margot Mains said significant work had occurred in recent years to strengthen clinical care and associated observations. This included staff training and random audits.

Ms Mains stressed: ''If anyone has concerns about their care, or the care of a loved one, they can contact the Nurse Unit Manager on the respective ward at any time, or send an email to ISLHD-Trim@health.nsw.gov.au or contact the Mental Health Service on 0423 023 668 during business hours''.