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Experts, advocates call for more adequate mental health services in the NT as hospitals strugglewith demand

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Malia Ford has made great strides in her mental health journey, but it has not been easy.

After suffering childhood trauma and a long bout of homelessness, as a teenager she was diagnosed with depression.

"I've experienced suicidal tendencies," she said. "It is quite crippling."

With the help of a psychologist, the 28-year-old has since made significant progress.

However, she said, finding the right support in the Northern Territory had been a challenge.

"It was very difficult, especially as a young person, trying to access services with my diagnosis … I was usually told that I was too complex," she said.

"It took me a long time to find a psychologist I could actually talk to.

"They didn't understand how to communicate with me."

Mental health conditions contribute about 16 per cent of the burden of disease in the Northern Territory, compared to about 7 per cent nationally.

Experts say difficulties in accessing support services in the Territory have contributed to mental illness being underreported and underdiagnosed.

Difficulties in accessing support

Jade Gooding — a clinical psychologist and the executive manager of mental health at Anglicare NT — said there were not enough mental health services to meet demand in the Territory.

"We are really stretched and understaffed when it comes to clinical professionals," she said.

"There are about 20,000 clinical psychologists nationally and there [are] only about 200 in the Northern Territory."

A young brunette woman smiles at the camera. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
Anglicare NT's Jade Gooding says Territorians need more support for mental health issues.(ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

Mental health presentations to hospital emergency departments also averaged 280 per 10,000 in the Territory, compared to 115 nationally.

So far this year, four code yellows have been called at Royal Darwin Hospital (RDH), with a rise in patients seeking mental health services contributing to the increased demand.

"We have higher needs. We have more complexity. We have bigger issues relating to social determinants of health," Ms Gooding said.

The NT government has said a proposed 18-bed unit for mental health patients at RDH will help boost capacity for services at the hospital.

That facility is planned to include a $30 million inpatient unit and $7.5 million stabilisation referral area, which the government says will provide a more "therapeutic environment" for mental health patients.

"Territorians deserve access to the best possible mental health services and our government has taken decisive action to deliver," NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles said.

Ms Gooding said NT government funding was dedicated to managing severe mental health presentations, but services for those with mild to moderately complex issues also needed to be improved.

"Part of the reason is to try [to] work on the prevention and early intervention of those mental health issues," she said.

Walking to raise awareness of mental health

Ms Ford was among dozens of Territorians who took part in the Walk for Mental Health at Darwin's Botanic Gardens on Sunday.

"It's really important for people to be aware of mental health," Ms Ford said.

"A lot of people still don't understand how to deal with people when they're expressing that they're in a crisis, or that they're not coping well."

Walk participant Tiana Brewster-O'Brian, who works in a hospital, said the COVID-19 pandemic had only exacerbated mental health challenges.

"Mental health is a really important part of our general health and wellbeing," she said.

"Working in our healthcare system, you can certainly see it taking a toll on everyone at the moment."

A group of people laugh around a sign at a walk for mental health
Sunday's Walk for Mental Health event aimed to raise awareness of mental health issues in the Territory. (ABC News: Hamish Harty)
Source: ABC

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