Up to 60pc of calls to South Australia’s mental health triage line go unanswered, nursing union finds

Up to 60 per cent of calls to a mental health triage line in South Australia will not be answered due to lack of staff and faulty equipment.

“On a daily basis, 30 to 60 per cent of calls are not answered,” said Elizabeth Dabars, secretary of the South Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.

Ms Dabars said the Mental Health Triage Service, a state-run line, receives between 100 and 120 calls a day from people in crisis.

She said the kinds of calls doctors got were from people who were troubled and had committed suicide or had a psychotic episode, or from families of people in crisis.

Depending on their needs, doctors connected them to hospitals, ambulances, or psychiatrists.

She recalled one call made by a desperate mother whose teenage son threatened to harm himself because he had bad thoughts.

The employee was able to convince her son before counseling the family and linking them to ongoing support.

She said neither she nor the service is aware of what happened to the people whose calls went unanswered.

Ms Dabars said it was also distressing for call takers who can see bank calls but cannot come to them until the person they are talking to has received proper assessment and assistance.

Calling the helpline is for people who need urgent help.(Flickr: David Goering)

Staff shortage and defective equipment

Ms Dabars said there were also five full-time vacancies to be filled but that trained staff had been difficult to find.

She said a specialized training program to prepare nurses appropriately for this role had been promised but not delivered.

Besides the understaffing, when a call is answered, there were also 10 seconds where neither the caller nor the doctor could hear each other leading to confusion.

Silhouette of a woman with her head in her hands
There are five full-time job vacancies to be filled.(News letters)

Mrs. Dabars said this was very distressing for someone who was already in a crisis and was waiting to see.

She said there had been instances where callers had hung up the phone thinking the call had been cut, and the issue was raised with SA Health.

“Since moving to the Glenside Campus in 2020, the government-funded mental health triage service has deteriorated to alarming levels.”

Close-up of a woman's mouth with a headphone microphone.
Call takers find it stressful when they see bank calls that they can’t attend.(ABC News: file photo)

Ms Dabars described the shortage of mental health nurses in South Africa as a “prolonged failure” of successive governments.

She called on Chief Psychiatrist John Braille to address unmet demand, workforce shortages and occupational health and safety issues for consumers and employees.

“It is very important that people who need help are able to get it in a timely and appropriate manner,” Ms. Debars said.

“We are deeply concerned that this continued failure to adequately service staff means calls have gone unheeded.”

SA Health has been contacted for comment.

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