No action taken against Victorian mental health services despite more than 12,000 complaints

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<span>Photograph: NickyLloyd/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: NickyLloyd/Getty Images

After receiving more than 12,000 complaints about Victorian mental health services, the state’s regulator has not taken compliance action against a single mental healthcare provider in seven years.

This is despite the royal commission into the Victorian mental health sector last year finding systemic breaches of the law and human rights across the system.

Annual reports from Victoria’s mental health complaints commissioner (MHCC) showed that in the seven years since it was first established in July 2014, it received 14,160 inquiries, of which 12,470 were complaints. Yet no compliance notices were issued, despite the MHCC having regulatory powers to compel providers to improve.

Related: Calls for people with mental impairment to get more protections in Victoria’s justice system

The MHCC is an independent body that resolves complaints about Victoria’s public mental health services and makes recommendations for improvements.

The MHCC’s service provider complaint reports, obtained under freedom of information, show that some mental health services do not hand over data on the outcomes of complaints, in breach of the state’s Mental Health Act (2014).

Simon Katterl, a human rights and mental health consultant who obtained the reports, said it was “simply unbelievable” that more than 12,000 complaints did not warrant a compliance notice.

“We’ve have had a regulator in place for eight years during a human rights crisis but we have no evidence they have acted during that crisis,” he said.

“You can tell that by the lack of transparency in the regulator and the lack of use of their powers.”

Katterl said while complaints data alone could not always give a clear picture of what is occurring in a service – forensic mental health services, for example, have higher numbers of complaints due to the complexity of their care – it was nonetheless data the public had a right to access.

“The public deserves this information so they can make better informed decisions about the care they receive,” he said. “They deserve transparency.”

An MHCC spokesperson said it regularly worked through “a range of processes” with services to address issues and improvements identified in the complaints and investigations process.

“Services have cooperated with our processes and to date a compliance notice has not been required to achieve this outcome,” the spokesperson said.

The state’s peak mental health organisation said it had “real concerns” about the MHCC’s lack of enforcement.

The Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council’s chief executive, Craig Wallace, said an “unwillingness to rock the boat with service providers” was most likely behind the lack of action by the regulator against noncompliant providers who did not provide full data about complaint outcomes.

Related: ‘People don’t choose to become addicts’: the push to end Victoria’s war on drugs

The chief executive of Mind Australia – a community-based mental health provider, Gill Callister, said it was vital people with mental health concerns, their families and carers had access to “information about the performance and approach” of the mental health services they access.

“For a lot of people, a lack of transparency reinforces the view that they’re sitting at the bottom of the pile in terms of priority even when seeking information about their own care,” she said.

The royal commission recommended the creation of a new mental health and wellbeing commission to monitor the government’s delivery of the inquiry’s reform. The scathing report found the over-burdened system was crisis-driven and not designed to support people living with psychological distress or mental illness.

In one case, a mental health service had 60 complaints for every 1,000 patients made to the MHCC in 2018-19, and 57 complaints for every 1,000 patients made the following year.

“Treatment was the most common issue raised in complaints,” one of the reports said. “Responsiveness of staff was frequently raised … and included inadequate consideration of the views of consumers, family and carers, as well as lack of care and attention.”

“Suboptimal treatment [quality of treatment] was also commonly raised, particularly with the MHCC, with the most commonly raised suboptimal treatment issue for MHCC complaints being disagreement with treatment order.”

A government spokesperson said the new commission would include people with lived experience who will have increased scope to investigate complaints.

“The current MHCC uses a range of resolution tactics to resolve issues raised through complaints – including formal conciliation which makes sure complainants can continue to engage with the mental health system in the long-term,” the spokesperson said.

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