WAKE-UP CALL: Mental health advocate Richard Makarewicz is concerned about a new Northern Rivers crisis line.
WAKE-UP CALL: Mental health advocate Richard Makarewicz is concerned about a new Northern Rivers crisis line.

Fears voiced over new mental health hotline

By DAWN COHEN

A NEW Northern Rivers crisis line could be fatal for users, mental health advocate Richard Makarewicz said yesterday.

The Mental Health Access Line is the only emergency mental health intervention available to Northern Rivers residents.

However, Mr Makarewicz's clients have waited for up to 20 minutes for the phone to be answered.

"When you are suicidal it is just not possible to wait that long," he said.

"You could give up and top yourself."

Before November, residents in crisis could call the local Mental Health Acute Care Team and other local hospitals and resources directly. The Acute Care Team were on call around the clock.

Now callers must ring a 1300 number accessing a US-owned Sydney-based company which takes the details and contacts local services.

The North Coast Area Health Service pays Mckesson Asia Pacific for each call received.

The Acute Care Team is only on call until 10pm.

Dr Graham Truswell, a general practitioner from Bangalow Medical Service, who also works in Byron Bay Hospital's emergency service, said access line staff appeared inadequately trained and often gave inappropriate advice.

"Managing patients having a mental health crisis requires specialised experience," he said.

"Some of their workers seem to have limited training and experience. They don't know our area and facilities well.

"Before, the Acute Care Team would engage the patient and calm them down, often averting the need for an admission.

"Access line staff seem to have their own protocol to follow. They often just get into an argument with the patients. We have found it is not worth using the service."

Dr Angelo Virgona, clinical director of mental health for the North Coast Area Health Service, said the access line provided a more consistent, centralised service. It was cheaper to contract it out than 'do it ourselves'.

Dr Virgona acknowledged callers can wait too long, but said the times would be reduced. Delays were caused by the access line receiving 3500 calls in 12 weeks, a higher figure than expected.

Dr Andrew Wilson, psychiatric managing director of Mckesson Asia Pacific, said staff had tertiary qualifications with 'appropriate experience'. Staff received a month's training before being allowed on the phone.



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