Psychiatrists challenge Mental Health Act change

Psychiatrists in New South Wales have voiced their unease about changes in the operation of the Mental Health Act 2007 (NSW) by sending an open letter to all members of the NSW Parliament.

The letter calls for a return to the practice of reviewing within seven to 10 days the detention of a person who is deemed to be mentally ill.

‘We write to express support for any legislative change designed to restore the timely occurrence of the mental health inquiry under the Mental Health Act 2007 (NSW),’ the letter says.

‘We believe that an independent inquiry that generally occurs within 7 – 10 days after admission is preferable to the current “third or fourth week of detention” timeframe.’

The letter is signed by psychiatrist Dr Christopher Ryan from the University of Sydney on behalf of 149 psychiatrists working in the public and private sectors. 

In a video interview, PIAC Solicitor Peter Dodd talks to Dr Christopher Ryan and lawyer Sascha Callaghan about the impact of the changes on people with a mental illness. 

Until recently, a person deemed mentally ill had to be taken before a magistrate ‘as soon as practicable’ after two doctors decide they warrant detention. Now the magistrate’s role has been taken over by the Mental Health Review Tribunal.

The meaning of ‘as soon as practicable’ has long been interpreted as within a week or so. The short timeframe is intended to protect the civil rights of the person detained.

However, in February 2010, the Hon Greg James QC, President of the Mental Health Review Tribunal, wrote to the NSW Area Directors of Mental Health to advise that mental health inquiries could be expected to take place during the third or fourth week of detention as a result of amendments to the Mental Health Act.

No mention of this change was made when the amendments went before the NSW Parliament.

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