Parents share heartache of Tasmania's 'underfunded' adolescent mental health service

Key points:

  • Tasmania's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service has been the subject of a scathing internal review.
  • The Government says it has only received a draft report on the review, and will respond fully when a final copy is received.
  • Families with involvement in the service say it is clearly struggling for resources.

The first registrar to treat Brad Klaffer's 14-year-old son in the Royal Hobart Hospital quickly built a rapport with the teen, who was experiencing psychosis.

Within days, however, the doctor left the ward without explanation — and his long-term replacement did not materialise for almost two weeks as they were stuck in hotel quarantine.

The 14-year-old was wrongly awoken by nurses at 4am every day because the Child and Adolescent Mental Health team had failed to tell other hospital staff that early observations were no longer required.

Mr Klaffer's son was at one stage moved from a dedicated adolescent mental health bed into a private unit set aside for people with coronavirus to make way for another patient.

In the early days of his admission, he was not allowed outside for fresh air because the dedicated outdoor area in the new hospital was not considered safe.

Upon discharge, his family was offered care through the public health system — but was told there was a four to six week wait for an appointment with a psychologist.

A man in a grey suit looks sombre.
Hobart dad Brad Klaffer says Tasmania’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service is in desperate need of more fundinng(ABC News: Video)

Fed up, the teenager's family has sought private treatment at a cost of hundreds of dollars per hour every week.

"It's been a very challenging time," Mr Klaffer said.

"The good news is he's responding really well."

Mr Klaffer said he did not blame individual staff for his son's experience, but that it was clear the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service was underfunded.

He's speaking out because he's afraid families without his resources or confidence could get lost in the system.

"I can understand why our borders are up, because our health system wouldn't be able to cope," Mr Klaffer said.

Mr Klaffer is not alone.

CAMHS 'can improve' says minister

Earlier this month, a leaked review of CAMHS laid bare widespread issues within the service.

Among the damning findings were that:

  • CAMHS funding "does not approach" the amount required to meet Tasmania's needs
  • Children and teenagers with severe and complex needs — ranging from those with autism spectrum disorder to people who had been sexually abused — were "generally not accepted" by CAMHS
  • Acute services were effectively unavailable outside of business hours
  • Stakeholders such as doctors and Education Department staff said they had stopped referring "their most difficult consumers" to CAMHS because the service was unable to assist those young people.
Mental Health Minister Jeremy Rockliff at a media conference.
Mental Health Minister Jeremy Rockliff says work is being done to improve CAMHS(ABC News: Mitch Woolnough)

Responding to the report at the time, Mental Health Minister Jeremy Rockliff emphasised it was only a draft, and that a final version was forthcoming.

In a statement on Friday, he said: "The Government takes child and adolescent mental health extremely seriously and we are committed to developing an integrated pathway for children, adolescents, their families and carers to navigate the mental health system."

Labor Member for Rumney Sarah Lovell May 9, 2017
Labor Health spokeswoman Sarah Lovell urges the government to move more quickly on the CAMHS report.(By Rhiana Whitson)

Labor health spokeswoman Sarah Lovell said action should be swift.

"We need to hear from the Minister for Mental Health that he is committed to releasing that final report and that the Government is committed to adopting the recommendations from that report."

Patrick McGorry, wearing blazer and collared shirt, sits in office with window and computer screen visible behind him.
Governments and communities need to prioritise young peoples' mental health, says Professor Patrick McGorry.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

According to youth mental health expert Patrick McGorry, it would take more than a review to enact much-needed change.

The 2010 Australian of the Year said that Tasmania — and other jurisdictions around the country — had historically failed to make youth mental health a top priority.

"It takes political will and community support to make sure the investments are there and the serious reforms that are needed do actually take place," Professor McGorry said.

'Let down by the system'

Tracey Harding is another parent who has had dealings with CAMHS.

A woman stands in front of photos of her late son.
Hobart mother Tracey Harding wants changes to the system she says let her son, Brodie, down.(Supplied: Tracey Harding)

Her involvement ended in tragedy.

Her son, Brodie Young, took his life aged just 23 after years of struggling for support in managing what was eventually recognised as schizophrenia.

Between the ages of 16 and 18, Ms Harding said, Brodie battled a "raging drug habit".

"These kids are let down by the system," Ms Harding said.

Ms Harding said the family was yet to have his final notes — sent to the Coroner — returned.

Her plea to the Tasmanian Government was simple: better fund early intervention so other families don't suffer the same fate.

"If you can put the money into a bloody football club, surely to God you can spend money so we have happy, productive kids later on," Ms Harding said.

Mr Rockliff said: "The Government acknowledges that there are longstanding issues and gaps within our Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, which is exactly why we commissioned a review last year.

"We welcome reform to CAMHS, and we are committed to getting it right as young Tasmanians deserve nothing less than the best possible mental health supports and services."

A young man sits on a bench.
Brodie Young's mother says he struggled to get support from Tasmania's mental health system.(Supplied: Tracey Harding)

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