The number of nurses working in mental health and addiction in the top of the South has increased over the past five years, but there is a declining number of specialists in the sector.
There were 126 registered nurses working in mental health and addiction in Nelson and Marlborough in 2011, but that number jumped to 161 last year, the Ministry of Health revealed.
However, the Marlborough community mental health team has been short-staffed over the past six months, with four empty positions as of this month.
Nelson Marlborough District Health Board mental health, addictions and disability support services manager Jane Kinsey said two of those roles had been filled and new staff members would start next month.
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Kinsey was still holding interviews for the other positions, she said.
“We generally have good stability in this team, low turnover. But in the past six months there have been more vacancies than usual due to staff retirement and new family commitments.
“All health boards share the challenge of recruiting the range of staff needed in what can be challenging but rewarding roles.”
The board had 275 fulltime staff working in mental health, Kinsey said.
That included registered nurses, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and clinicians.
Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman said the increase in mental health and addiction nurses was supported by an extra $94 million pumped into the board in the past eight years.
“It’s important people can access the appropriate mental health and addiction services that they need,” Coleman said.
“But there’s always more we can do and the Government continues to work on improving mental health services. Having a dedicated workforce is an important part of our wider plan.”
The ministry’s figures follow the release of the Mental Health and Addiction Workforce Action Plan 2017-2021, which said increasing demand was putting pressure on a declining number of specialists.
Public Services Association spokesman Simon Oosterman agreed there was work to be done to improve mental health services.
“The need is incredibly high… You only have to look at the number of suicide attempts police attend to know there is something terribly wrong there.”
Marlborough area commander Inspector Simon Feltham said police attended a self-harm or suicide attempt in the region once every two days on average.
Oosterman surveyed 6000 healthcare workers across the country for the YesWeCare campaign, and 90 per cent said the health system was short on staff and resources, affecting access to healthcare and creating unreasonable workloads.
Mental health was a recurring theme in feedback from Marlborough residents, he said.
“Staff are incredibly overworked. People are too often working 60 or even 80 hours a week trying to make up for understaffing. And people say it’s because it’s hard to recruit people, but that’s totally to do with the conditions people are working under.
“There’s a high turnover in mental health, people only stay about two or three years. People are getting burnt out. We need to make mental health a job people really want to work in. Staff that are safe, that feel they’ve made a difference, that people aren’t falling through the cracks.
“And just throwing staff at it is not solving the problem. There are structural issues.”
The Mental Health and Addiction Plan said mental health services needed to be more flexible in responding to new models of care and better at working with other agencies.
Staff should be more capable and competent, the Maori workforce should be grown, and recruitment strategies and career pathways should be developed, it said.
Creating regional plans was the next step, the action plan said.
Kinsey said a mental health nurse educator was recently employed to work with clinicians to build skills and introduce new practices into their work in the top of the South.