‘You don’t have a choice’: Victoria’s mental health regulator criticised over complaints handling

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‘You don’t have a choice’: Victoria’s mental health regulator criticised over complaints handling
‘You don’t have a choice’: Victoria’s mental health regulator criticised over complaints handling

Olivia* still has questions about the compulsory mental health treatment she received at a Melbourne hospital.

Last year, she was admitted into the Northern hospital after an eating disorder relapse. Olivia, aged in her 40s, alleges she received forced mental health treatment after being told the hospital did not treat eating disorders.

“When somebody’s

in a crisis, medically unstable and their life is in danger, you don’t have a choice in what hospital you go to,” she said.

“I needed treatment to keep me alive at that point and to be met with, ‘why did you come here – we don’t treat eating disorders here’, is difficult to hear when you’re in the midst of a crisis.”

“I was so concerned that the treatment I was receiving was failing, missing the risks that I knew were there and things that needed to be done in order to mitigate those risks around eating disorders and re-feeding that were being missed.”

Olivia’s experience led her to make a written complaint to the state’s mental health regulator.

Guardian Australia this week revealed Victoria’s mental health complaints commissioner has not taken compliance action against a single mental healthcare provider since it was established in 2014. This is despite a royal commission into the state’s mental health sector last year finding systemic breaches of the law and human rights across the system.

The Guardian analysed service provider complaints, obtained under freedom of information laws, which included direct complaints to the health service and to the MHCC. The services with the largest increases in complaints between 2017-18 and 2019-20 were Mercy Health (by 78%) , South West Health (72%), St Vincent’s (44%) and Ballarat Health (43%).

Forensic mental provider, Forensicare, was excluded from the analysis, because the length of stay is much greater than non-forensic admissions and because there are no other forensic mental health providers to compare it against.

Mercy Health said all patients were encouraged to provide feedback. Grampians Health – which incorporates Ballarat Health – said feedback “gives us the opportunity to better work with our clients and to improve our service”. St Vincent’s also said patients and their families were encouraged to share feedback.

South West Health was contacted for comment.

After Olivia complained to the regulator, the MHCC said in its response that the clinician notes did not align with her testimony.

Olivia, who is awaiting a written response from Northern Health to her complaints, said the complaints process had “taken a toll”.

“It is reiterating to individuals you know, to myself is that you have no power in those situations,” she said.

“You have no autonomy and no authority and everything you say and do will be disbelieved. If you are harmed through this process, no one is going to believe you.”

Melbourne Health – which encompasses the Northern hospital where she received treatment – ​​said it could not provide a response to Olivia’s allegations as the complaint remained under investigation.

“The Royal Melbourne Hospital NorthWestern Mental Health works in full cooperation with the MHCC to ensure due process,” a Melbourne Health spokesperson said.

The royal commission found the mental health system was crisis-driven and not designed to support people living with psychological distress or mental illness. It recommended the creation of an independent mental health and wellbeing commission to monitor reform and support people living with mental health issues and their families to help improve the system.

Guardian Australia understands the government will introduce legislation for the new commission – which will absorb the MHCC – in the coming weeks, in line with the royal commission’s recommendation.

The new commission, which will be made up of people with lived experiences of mental illness, will have bolstered powers to investigate complaints.

The MHCC said it made 80 recommendations to services following complaints from consumers or their family and carers in 2020-21.

“Everyone has the right to make a complaint in Victoria’s public mental health system either directly to the service or to the MHCC, and we know that while it can be challenging to speak up, complaints are an essential part of building a better system that is driven by people with lived experience,” a spokesperson said.

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