‘We don’t know what to do’: Mother’s desperate plea for son

An Adelaide mother who says her suicidal 14-year-old son was repeatedly sent home from the Women’s and Children’s Hospital without adequate treatment has lodged a formal complaint and written to the Health Minister demanding more resources for vulnerable children.

Apr 19, 2021, updated Apr 19, 2021
The worried mother and her son.
Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

The worried mother and her son. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

The woman – who InDaily has chosen not to name to protect her son’s identity – says she now wakes up every morning wondering whether her son “is going to be alive”.

“The whole thing is appalling and this is happening every day,” she said.

“I don’t know where these kids are supposed to go because this is not just happening to my kid. I don’t know where you go. There’s no help.”

The mother said she had taken her son – who has autism and depression – to hospital three times in the past year for “suicidal ideations and behaviour”.

She said the first time, he was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Women’s and Children’s Hospital and discharged the following morning “with a care plan that advised him to watch TV, listen to music, pat his dogs and eat some food”.

The second and third times, she said, “he was denied an admission… and discharged within hours of his arrival to ED”.

I was just in complete disbelief that my son had been turned away in this crisis

“He is most definitely suicidal,” she told InDaily.

“He talks about it every day. Multiple times. And every morning we wake up and we wonder whether he’s going to be alive because I can’t stay awake 24 hours a day – all night – watching him.

“In his mind he thought surely the hospital would be able to help him. For him to just feel so disregarded, he just feels like there’s no hope anymore.”

After his most recent presentation to hospital via ambulance last month, his mother lodged a formal complaint.

“I was so stressed and just in complete disbelief that my son had been turned away in this crisis,” she said.

“The moment we need emergency care, it’s not there…

“I would have liked to have taken him to hospital this week. He’s on this new medication. He just wants to die, we don’t know how to help him. We don’t know what to do. We literally don’t know what to do.”

In her letter, seen by InDaily, the mother states her son “was unequivocally suicidal prior to, and after discharge”.

“The Women’s and Children’s Hospital breached their duty of care to (my son) by failing to provide reasonable care and treatment,” the complaint says.

“This is the third time the Women’s and Children’s Hospital have neglected their responsibility to treat (my son’s) suicidal ideations and actions.

“He now believes there is no hope for recovery, which exacerbates the risk to his safety.

“The model of care for mental health patients in the emergency department (is) ineffective, particularly for children on the autism spectrum.”

She believes her son should have been admitted for an assessment with a psychiatrist and a review of his medication.

“I personally feel any child who is presenting with suicidal behaviour or ideation needs to be monitored for 24 hours,” she said.

“They need their medication reviewed by a doctor. That’s an absolute must.”

We feel like we’ve got nowhere to go.

At the time, the mother had believed her son was suffering from psychosis.

“When I rang triple zero for the ambulance I said that to them,” she said.

“I said, ‘I think my son is suffering psychosis. He’s threatening me. He’s threatening himself’.

“That’s why we wanted him in hospital. We just didn’t feel like it was safe for anyone. We didn’t feel like it was safe to take him home for us – we’ve got two other children as well – and we didn’t feel like it was safe for him to be home.

“We are constantly on suicide watch. We feel like we’ve got nowhere to go.

You’re just sent away and told to access your NDIS funding. Well, that’s not going to help anyone who’s suicidal.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of fancy care plan you’ve got. That’s not going to help you if you’ve got a child who is trying to kill themselves.”

She said after posting about her ordeal in a private Facebook group, other parents of children with autism came forward with similar concerns.

“I had over a hundred comments from people saying all different sorts of things,” she said.

The mother said 14 parents contacted her, saying “yes we have had the same experience – my child was taken to hospital, my child was sectioned, they were forced to go to hospital in an ambulance or police escort, we waited four to six hours to see a doctor and we were sent home with nothing”.

She has also written to Health Minister Stephen Wade demanding action on “the mental health crisis” for “our state’s youth”.

She wrote to the minister first in September last year and again last month.

In the first letter, she warned the state’s mental health services “are beyond breaking point… grossly ineffective and deficient”.

“During the last 12 months, I have desperately tried to find help for my thirteen year old son who is on the autism spectrum, only to be repeatedly neglected by an overrun, exhausted system,” she told the minister.

She sought to bring to his attention “the challenges parents face trying to access mental health support for their children”, saying the GP referral pathway was time-consuming and costly.

She told him Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services had advised her to call triple zero if her son’s mental health deteriorated, and her son was subsequently admitted to the WCH psychiatric ward, before she was encouraged to seek treatment through “private options” – although the cost was prohibitive as she said the NDIS doesn’t cover psychiatry.

In her most recent letter, after the latest hospital visit, she told Wade: “The lack of reasonable care (my son) received at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, in what was an extremely traumatic event, has inflicted me with serious mental anguish.”

“I have not been able to sleep properly since the incident and I am experiencing nausea, headaches, panic, trembling and heart palpitations,” she said.

“My concern is, Mr Wade, that you and the South Australian Government, are not listening to the public or the experts.

“A 2014 Review of South Australia’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services was conducted in relation to a number of youth suicides by the Women’s and Children’s Health Network.

“Two of these suicides were the subject of a Coronial Inquest. The Coroner’s findings identified a lack of access to Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists.”

She told him that “the state does not have enough psychiatrists to treat children and adolescents suffering serious mental health conditions”.

“The number of psychiatrists employed in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) needs to increase,” she wrote.

“As a result, the Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the psychiatrists from the (inpatient psychiatric ward) are refusing admissions, putting our children’s lives at risk.

“The South Australian Government must be accountable for these failings. The Women’s and Children’s Hospital must be adequately resourced to treat these children with the care they so desperately need.

“I would like a written response, outlining how you intend to solve this urgent crisis.”

The mother is yet to receive a response from the Minister to this letter but she did receive a response to her letter last year.

In it, the minister told her “inpatient mental health treatment is based on the principles of least restrictive care and the best interest of children and young people”.

He said the psychiatric inpatient unit at the WCH “is often time limited, with support offered predominantly in the community”.

“This is to ensure that treatment aligns to changing development of children and young people that occur with these adaptations,” he stated.

“It also ensures that children and young people can maintain a normal connection with home life, school engagement and other activities they enjoy.”

Wade also told the mother that a new “model of care” was being developed and “I am advised that your feedback has been considered in this development, along with a focus on the interface with NDIS services”.

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“Your correspondence has provided an opportunity to review aspects of the service, most particularly access to, and the interface with, NDIS services and structures,” he said.

“CAMHS appreciates your feedback.”

The mother described Wade’s response as “an absolute joke”.

“They need more funding,” she said.

“I keep reading and hearing (Premier) Steven Marshall putting money into the mental health system but it’s crippling. I don’t know where the money is going because it’s not working.”

In her recent letter to the minister, she included messages she had received from other concerned parents with their permission.

One said: “They honestly don’t care. We have been there multiples times. We just don’t go anymore. And they said if I couldn’t deal with him I could voluntarily give him to the Department for Child Protection, I was fuming.”

Another said: “This was us on Boxing Day with our 13 year old son. We had police and ambos over, we couldn’t control him and he was taken by ambos to also be assessed for concussion. Plus they wanted him admitted and assessed because he had been smashing his head on everything. Nothing was done, no paperwork to take home… nothing, not even a concussion check. Mental health team were too busy to see him.”

A third parent said: “Suicidal ideation is valid to admit to hospital but I have found that as soon as you mention the word autism, Women’s and Children’s Hospital refuse to help.”

A spokesman for Wade said the minister would reply to the latest letter.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Women’s and Children’s Hospital said the hospital had “a clear process for the delivery of care to children and young people experiencing mental health issues”.

“This includes those presenting with emotional instability and risks of serious self-harm,” the spokesperson said.

“The nature and development of mental health challenges for some can be complex.

“There are many considerations when deciding treatment options, however we may implement alternative pathways of care to ensure our mental health consumers access the best possible care in environments that support the best possible recovery.

“Where it is decided that inpatient care is not the best treatment option, children and young people are provided with community follow up care to ensure they receive the support they need.

“South Australian families can rest assured our emergency departments offer safe and quality care to people with mental health needs.

“Children, young people and their families are encouraged to seek help and support if they are experiencing mental health challenges.”

The mother said her son was now seeing a psychiatrist through CAMHS “but I truly believe the only reason he got that appointment is because I rang them that week that he was discharged and I went off my rocker”.

“I completely lost it,” she said.

“I said I’m going to make as much noise as I need to because no-one is taking responsibility. And I got a phone call the next day saying he could see the top guy.”

She said he had attended a couple of appointments and had his medication changed but he was still having suicidal thoughts.

She believes the 12-bed psychiatric unit at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital is too small.

“They need more inpatient beds – 12 beds for the entire state is not enough,” she said.

“They’ve made this big fancy ward and it’s still only 12 beds.”

The WCH spokesperson said “the number of treatment spaces at the new Mallee Ward has been determined by statewide planning and analysis of clinical activity at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital to provide a statewide approach to service provision for children”.

“The new Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) 12-bed unit is adequate to meet the needs of the state,” the spokesperson said.

“On very rare occasions, the Women’s and Children’s Hospital may involve Child Protection Services if there is a clear and serious risk to a child’s safety and wellbeing.

“The involvement of Child Protection Services would only occur after serious consideration of appropriate procedures and with the foremost consideration being the health, safety and wellbeing of the child.

“The Women’s and Children’s Hospital has procedures in place to ensure the health and safety of children who present to the hospital, and would never use Child Protection Services to threaten a family or to encourage a family to leave the hospital.”

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14 – or you can call the Mental Health Triage Service / Assessment and Crisis Intervention Service on 13 14 65.

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