THREATENED AND BURNT OUT
By Alex Easton
WATCHING her driverless, burning ute rolling down her street in the pre-dawn darkness will probably count among the more surreal experiences in Julie Serrolli's life.
But that experience was overshadowed the next day, when the man she believes set fire to her car threatened her and staff at the nearby Goonellabah Coles supermarket with an iron bar and was taken to the Richmond Clinic psychiatric unit by police.
The incident last weekend comes as questions are raised about the ability of mental health services on the Northern Rivers to cope with the level of illness in the community.
Tweed-based Magistrate Jeff Linden recently lashed the health service after the Tweed and Lismore psychiatric clinics refused to accept another man who was brought to court after allegedly assaulting his father, accusing them of describing the man as 'not mentally ill' only because they lacked the space to take him.
It's a claim the North Coast Area Health Service vehemently denies, but that didn't stop Mr Linden's comments making national media.
A health service spokesman agreed that Richmond Clinic was 'less than ideal', but said the clinic's issues had little to do with the availability of beds.
Richmond Clinic never turned away people who needed to be admitted, he said. The clinic was rarely filled to capacity and on those few occasions new patients were sent to another psychiatric unit.
The spokesman said Richmond Clinic's issues were based around the fact it was not purpose-built as a psychiatric unit; something that would be addressed when a new $38.5 million unit opened next year
Northern Rivers Social Development Council president Jenny Dowell rejected that idea, saying Richmond Clinic had too few beds now and it was 'naive' to expect that even an upgraded clinic would meet the region's needs.
Ms Dowell said the failure to help the mentally ill stretched beyond the health service, pointing to a failure to co-ordinate support services.
The problem was so serious that representatives of those agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Mission Australia, will meet at a forum in Lismore next month to find a way to co-ordinate their efforts to better help people with a mental illness.
Of course, none of that helps Ms Serrolli, who still has a burned-out ute in her yard. Her partner, Shane Elstone, has spent this week getting to work in a borrowed car.
Ms Serrolli said the man's behaviour had been deteriorating for weeks before last weekend's incident.
Police confirmed the man had not been charged with setting fire to the ute, saying they were still investigating.
Neither police nor the health service could confirm whether the man was admitted to Richmond Clinic. However, Ms Serrolli said he had not been seen since she was told by police he was being taken there.