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Situation critical for mental health nurses

Nurses working at the frontline of mental health services are saying they are burnt out and feel unsafe at work.

The stark realities faced by mental health nurses has been exposed in a 2023 survey of 400 members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation Tōpūtanga Tapuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa (NZNO) Mental Health Nurses Section.

Survey respondents paint a vivid picture of the deteriorating state of the New Zealand mental health sector and the challenges facing who work in it with many saying they are burnt out and considering leaving. Seventy-six percent said they had received a physical threat in the past 12 months and over 40% said they had been assaulted in that time. One nurse mentioned an incident where a patient put seven staff in ED, some with serious injuries.

NZNO delegate, Mental Health Nurse Grant Brookes says there is widespread concern amongst mental health nurses about these challenges including staff shortages, safety fears, and lack of resources.

"Staffing shortages within mental health nursing teams is resulting in overwhelming workloads and burnout amongst nurses. A lack of experienced senior nurses, inadequate supervision, and poor remuneration are contributing to low morale and job dissatisfaction. It is common for New Zealand mental health nurses to leave for Australia for more money and better working conditions.

"Many mental health nurses fear for their safety. Violence and aggression towards staff and patients alike is increasingly common, with nurses being assaulted daily across Aotearoa. This is exacerbated by understaffing and a lack of accessible security and support.

"We have seen the demand for mental health services grow considerably in recent years. Much of the violence we are seeing is due to intoxication, withdrawal, or drug-induced psychosis from methamphetamine. Tāngata whaiora (people seeking wellness) with different needs are being combined in inadequate facilities. This poses significant safety risks as well as challenges for therapeutic care.

"There are also systematic failures. It’s not just about mental health services in hospitals. Insufficient resources and skilled support services, including inpatient beds and community resources, are hindering effective care. People aren’t getting the care they need in the community. An effective system needs to also support community mental health services and access to accommodation.

"The current situation is really difficult for mental health nurses. They care about doing a good job for their tāngata whaiora but feel they cannot do this in the current conditions."

NZNO Chief Executive Paul Goulter says the Coalition Government needs to take heed of mental health nurses’ voices and prioritise actionable solutions for meaningful change.

"The mental health system is in crisis. I was disappointed to see the lack of funding set aside for health over the next four years in Budget 2024. It’s barely enough to keep the lights on. There’s no commitment to meaningful investment to help New Zealanders with mental illness or addiction issues or the nurses who care for them.

"Mental health nurses are increasingly frustrated by the challenges they are facing, and they need to be much better supported. No nurse should be coming to work with an expectation there’s a high likelihood of being assaulted that day.

"Change is essential to improving the mental health care system and supporting both nurses and patients effectively. Increased funding for both hospital and community services is needed as well as systematic changes."

Journalists can download more information on the survey of mental health here. Health Nurses/2024/2024-5-28 MHNS 2023 Survey one-pager updated with areas of work.pdf?ver=KO3DiNgzMM2AJKMEpWqAdw%3d%3d

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