The COVID-19 pandemic has created a "tsunami of anxiety" for mental health nurses, and their patients, says Shellharbour Hospital worker Eddie Barry.
Mr Barry, vice-president of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Mental Health Nurses NSWNMA branch, joined his colleagues in a midday rally on Monday to highlight ongoing staffing and safety concerns which have only been exacerbated by the virus.
Many of them have suffered injury or psychological trauma this year, following violent incidents at Shellharbour's mental health units.
All of them have felt insulted by the NSW Government's 1.5 per cent cap on future wage increases that was confirmed last week.
It comes after the government reneged on this year's promised 2.5 per cent wage increase for all public servants including nurses, instead awarding an 0.3 per cent increase.
"It feels like the last straw, that despite our efforts this year, our work is still not valued," Mr Barry said.
"COVID-19 has led to a tsunami of anxiety - not just in our consumers but our staff. Staff are understandably concerned about the risk of contracting the virus and passing it onto loved ones.
"It's hard to educate many of our consumers on the need for hand hygiene, the need for social distancing, as many of them struggle with personal boundaries.
"Dealing with physical and verbal aggression is not new for mental health nurses - but the pandemic is just creating more tension, anxiety and aggression."
For instance the need for staff to don personal protective equipment, for their own safety, can lead to issues for them - and those in their care.
"I know nurses who have welts and broken skin behind their ears from wearing masks all the time," Mr Barry said.
"And psychosocial interventions with consumers are far more difficult with face masks - consumers find it confronting and because they can't read our facial expressions it can lead to misunderstandings."
Mr Barry, and branch president Glenn Hayes, said they were working collaboratively with hospital management to deal with ongoing issues.
Yet without the necessary government funding, they said many problems would not be resolved.
"There's been an influx in demand for mental health services during the pandemic which is understandable," Mr Hayes said.
"Yet there's not enough staff - or staff with the right skills mix - to cater for the increased workload.
"Staff are exposed to the risk of contracting COVID; they're exposed to violent situations on a regular basis.
"They've been kicked, punched, had their hair pulled or their noses broken.
"We just want to keep our staff - and consumers - safe. But we need the right support from government to do that."
NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet has defended the government's decision to cap public sector wage increases at 1.5 per cent for the next three financial years. He said the new policy would allow the government to keep as many people in work as possible.
The Mercury contacted the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District for comment on issues within Shellharbour Hospital's mental health services.
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