Mental health crisis point

NEGOTIATIONS over the closure of six acute mental health beds at the 30-bed Coffs Harbour mental health unit continued yesterday as the Examiner received more letters calling for an overnight facility in the Clarence Valley.

Nurses at the facility decided to close the beds earlier this week due to what the NSW Nurses Association described as "serious staff shortages" which were "putting both staff and patients at risk".

It is understood five staff members left the unit in the past two months and in the past month four nurses were sidelined following injuries from assaults in the ward, at least one facing surgery.

This situation has meant it is not unusual for two to four overtime shifts to be worked each day, with nurses frequently working double eight- to 10-hour shifts.

The vice-president of the mental health branch of the NSW Nurses Association, Jack Schwartz, said on Tuesday the action was about safety, not money. He said staff numbers had been dropping for more than two years but the situation was now acute.

The North Coast organiser for the NSW Nurses Association, Nola Scilinato, said yesterday the district had agreed to fill the vacancies with agency nurses in the short term and were looking to speed up the recruitment process for full-time replacements.

Earlier this week, Ms Scilinato said nurses had rejected an offer from the MNCLHD for an additional security guard on the ward during the morning and afternoon shifts, saying it was not a safe option.

She said they were requesting staffing of eight nurses in the unit during the day and afternoon shifts and four nurses at night in the 30-bed ward, which includes six high-dependency beds.

MNCLHD assistant chief executive Stephen Rodwell said it was premature to comment on the negotiations, however the MNCLHD was committed to providing a safe workplace for nursing staff and would "work with the NSW Nurses Association to ensure the availability of Mental Health Services at Coffs Harbour".

Meanwhile, a letter received from a Tucabia woman yesterday said an overnight facility in Grafton could have saved the life of her son, who committed suicide six years ago after being sent home from Grafton Base Hospital.

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