Hiring ban leaves psychiatric care in 'freefall'
STAFF shortages have plunged the mental health services "into freefall", creating unsafe working conditions and undermining patient care, it was claimed yesterday.
The damning indictment of services came from the Psychiatric Nurses' Association (PAI) which is calling on Health Minister Mary Harney to urgently exempt the service from the government recruitment embargo.
In the HSE West area, where the only study into the impact of the staffing moratorium has been undertaken, the number of unfilled posts in the mental health sevice in Sligo/Leitrim is currently at 23pc.
The report pointed to an increase in the number of violent incidents involving patients in the mental health services.
The union claims that psychiatric nurses, who represent just 4.5pc of staff in the HSE, are disproportionally affected by the embargo.
Almost 600 psychiatric nurses who retired or left the service last year have not been replaced, representing 40pc of the overall drop in HSE staff as a result of the recruitment ban.
PAI general secretary Des Kavanagh warned that by the end of the year one in five posts in the vulnerable service across the country would be unfilled.
"The mental health services are in freefall. I have been around the service since the 1970s, and I have never seen things as bad.
"Staff morale is at an all-time low. Our ability to respond in the care of patients is being totally undermined," he said.
He said that nurses were under growing pressure to manage care in difficult situations, which were often below what was regarded as minimum staffing levels.
In Co Clare, where there is a 32pc reduction in psychiatric nursing posts, a current proposal to amalgamate a unit for older persons with a unit for intellectually disabled persons was putting the service back 40 years, he claimed.
Concerns are also mounting over proposals being mooted to shut down community services and bring staff back into understaffed hospitals.
This will have an adverse impact on services for the growing number of people who are vulnerable to suicide, he said.
The union, which represents more than 6,000 nurses, is also calling on Ms Harney to approve an accelerated recruitment programme to bring new graduates into the service as quickly as possible.
Mr Kavanagh said that, in the absence of recruitment, the service was depending on overtime or agency nurses or retired people to come in and work to "maintain some semblance of a service".
He also pointed out that spending on the mental health services at a time of greatest need was at a historic low.