When you drive into Hobart’s drab grey walled Risdon prison you will see a sign leading you to the Wilfred Lopes Centre. This is the place where adult prisoners go for treatment when they are suffering an acute mental health episode. The Centre, opened in 2006, is a stark forbidding building, which has white walled corridors, heavy secure doors, and constant surveillance of patients by cameras. There are small grassed court yard areas and some indoor recreational spaces. But it’s a prison hospital at the end of the day.

It is no place for a child or adolescent with mental illness, yet the Tasmanian government in the past 12 months has allowed two young people between the ages of 15 and 17 to be housed there. And they have not been there a for a day or two, but in at least one case, 26 days.

But not only is Tasmania allowing this scandalous state of affairs to go on, but it is also, according to figures released yesterday by the Liberal’s Spokesperson on Health Bret Whitely, “58 children and adolescents were admitted to adult psychiatric wards throughout Tasmania in the period from 1 January 2008 to 1 January 2009.” Some have stayed in these wards for up to two months.

But it gets even worse when you drill down into the numbers. There have been seven children as young as 10 who have been admitted to the Spencer Clinic, an adult mental health unit in Burnie on the State’s north west.

Tasmania has no specialist children’s medical system. There is no children’s hospital and it does not have a children’s mental health service. Nor does the barely functioning State of 500,000 have a specialist children’s justice system, instead it relies on adult magistrates sitting in the children’s court, which is essentially just an adjunct to the magistrates court.

In short, Tasmania’s children and young people are second class citizens compared with their peers in Victoria, which has highly advanced and innovative children’s justice and children’s mental health systems in place. Keeping children in adult mental health facilities is inexcusable anytime and anywhere. It is as appalling as putting kids in adult jails.

Today’s Hobart Mercury has splashed this scandal across its front page this morning. Everyone seems outraged except Tasmania’s Health Minister Lara Giddings. Giddings was asked by Whitely yesterday to comment on the scandal. Her answer was arrogant and patronising.

“In an ideal world we would very much like to have our own separate psychiatric care unit for young people,” Giddings said.

“It would be something we would aim towards but, to be honest, at this point in time we are in a situation of a budget contraction, not expansion, in whole-of-government services.”

So young Tasmanians with mental health issues you can resign yourself to third rate care, and know that you are at risk of physical and mental harm because the Bartlett government doesn’t rate your human rights highly enough. Meanwhile the Tasmanian taxpayer continues to pay for the government’s $15 million sponsorship of Hawthorn and the Premier David Bartlett is throwing millions around in grants to companies in the IT sector.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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