Hospitals call in riot squad
Nurses struggling to cope with violent psychiatric patients
Published 12/08/2010 | 05:00
GARDAI wearing riot gear are being drafted in to deal with an upsurge of violence in our psychiatric hospitals.
The revelation was made in a disturbing new report which revealed that hundreds of psychiatric nurses have been forced to retire because of growing violence, stress and staff cuts.
The situation has become so bad that hospitals are now forced to hire private security firms because of the threat caused by violent male patients.
A new report from the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA) published yesterday -- 'A Mental Health Service in Crisis' -- painted a frightening picture of violent, out-of-control patients causing havoc in psychiatric hospitals across the country.
It found that there had been no fewer than 30 assaults on staff in just one hospital -- St Ita's, Portrane, Co Dublin -- this year alone.
The report also revealed that hospitals were forced to call in gardai in riot gear to deal with violent disturbances. However, it declined to say where these incidents happened.
Private security firms were employed in Ennis; at St Ita's in Portrane; St Brendan's on Rathdown Road in Dublin and at Naas hospitals.
In Tallaght, an elderly patient was stabbed and there were 51 assaults on staff working in St Brendan's in the first half of the year.
Gardai in riot gear have been called to acute and secure facilities. In Ennis, one patient is guarded around the clock.
"This is largely due to the absence of a regional secure unit in the west and the continuing shortage of adequate staff numbers," the report said.
It added that a serial rapist deemed a danger to women is being "secured" by guards, pending the outcome of legal procedures which would enable him to be transferred to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum, Dublin.
Last week, a patient set fire to a unit in Tallaght Hospital, leaving two nurses with burns and suffering from smoke inhalation, PNA general secretary Des Kavanagh said.
There has been an overall 20pc increase in suicides, up from 424 in 2008 to 527 last year, which is putting mental-health services under severe pressure.
A total of 11,966 people attended accident and emergency units because of self-harm. Some 2,500 of these had attempted self-harm previously.
Mr Kavanagh said a total of 596 nurses who retired last year had not been replaced because of the public sector recruitment freeze. He claimed that mental-health services were in "freefall" because of staff cuts.
"Our ability to respond to the needs of patients is being undermined because we don't have enough staff," he said.
"In society, there's a huge increase in suicides and self-harm in A&E. There are levels of violence we haven't seen before.
"It's a frightening environment to come into an acute unit suffering from a bipolar disease, only to find that there's a violent person causing havoc.
"We are depending on calling in the gardai and have had gardai come into our units in riot gear. We have had security personnel who are assigned on to our units to provide secure care."
The PNA said many patients were now too afraid to come into psychiatric hospitals.
"They're afraid what's going to happen to them. It's a terrifying environment for people whose recovery is being hampered," Mr Kavanagh said.
"The intention of mental services is to provide an environment where patients can recover. They can't recover in those circumstances."
The PNA estimates that another 250 psychiatric nurses will retire this year. Non-replacement has resulted in a large number of posts remaining vacant and the gaps are being filled using overtime and expensive agency nurses.
Last month, it emerged that 1,314 assaults were recorded in psychiatric services run by the HSE during 2009 -- a 36pc increase in just three years.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) said the increase could be explained after the introduction of a new incident-reporting system. It added that the hiring freeze was introduced 14 months ago and that nurses who retired before this time would have been replaced.
Agreement had been reached with the Department of Finance to hire up to 100 nurses this year, a spokeswoman said, adding that a move from institutional to community-based care would result in fewer staff being required.