Goulburn Valley Health, in Shepparton, provides mental health services for a large region, including Mitchell Shire. It is suffering a critical shortage of staff vacancies in mental health.

By Colin MacGillivray

MEMBER for Euroa Steph Ryan has called for programs to boost the number of mental health practitioners in regional Victoria amid a state-wide shortfall in how many mental health community service hours are delivered by hospitals.

Hospitals across the state are required by the Department of Health to deliver a set number of mental health community service hours.

Service hours are recorded by hospitals for all mental health-related contacts. For group session contacts, contact duration is multiplied by the number of healthcare professionals present and divided by the number of patients involved.

As of the second quarter of the 2021-22 financial year every hospital in Victoria was behind its service hour targets.

Among the worst performers in Victoria was Goulburn Valley, GV, Health, who services the Mitchell Shire.

GV Health delivered 10,183 hours of its yearly target of 49,698, or 20 per cent of its total goal. Only Bendigo Health, at 19 per cent, was worse.

Ms Ryan said the figures were not good enough.

“When you calculate it, that’s 15,000 hours behind where they should be,” she said.

“At a time when COVID lockdowns are creating huge challenges for people and impacting their mental health, the government should be prioritising the delivery of those mental health hours.”

GV Health community care and mental health executive director Josh Freeman said several factors influenced the hospital’s failure to meet its targets.

“For part of the 2021-22 financial year, GV Health was impacted by mental health enterprise bargaining protective action, which adversely affected the recording of mental health contacts,” he said.

“As part of this industrial action by all mental health staff across Victoria, mental health staff were not entering data and information into the reporting system that records the services provided for people accessing mental health care.

“This does not mean that the contact did not occur, only that the contact was not recorded as part of the wider data collection.

“This is not something that has been exclusive to GV Health and it has had a state-wide impact. As a result of this industrial action, hours reported are not a true representation of the actual service hours performed.

“It is GV Health’s view that the data available reflects an under-reporting of approximately 40 per cent.”

Mr Freeman said GV Health had also received increased funding for mental health services, and consequently saw its contact targets increased, but had struggled to attract additional mental health staff to the region due to COVID-19 complications and border closures.

He said the hospital currently had about 40 full-time equivalent roles vacant in mental health.

Mr Freeman said the redeployment of mental health workers to deal with COVID-19 matters had further stretched the already understaffed mental health workforce.

“At times during the pandemic, up to 15 per cent of GV Health’s mental health staff have assisted with the COVID-19 response in other roles, which has also impacted mental health service hours,” he said.

“This has assisted with the broader COVID-19 response and has also assisted in supporting mental health clients during the pandemic.”

Ms Ryan said mental health services should be prioritised.

“I would have thought mental health workers would be the last people you would take away from their duties to undertake COVID-related responsibilities at a time when mental health is so critical,” she said.

Ms Ryan said she would continue to advocate policies that increased the number of mental health workers in rural areas.

“If we don’t have a suitable workforce they should be recruiting more so we have more people coming through, and that just hasn’t happened,” she said.

“It’s not as if this problem has only emerged with the pandemic. It has been happening for years and I have been raising it with the government for years.”