By Narda Gilmore
Sarah Huxtable had just started high school when her life began to unravel, but due to a critical shortage of psychiatrists in Canberra, she spent months in Melbourne for treatment, costing her family tens of thousands of dollars.
According to figures from ACT Health, both the private and public psychiatry sectors are facing shortages with fewer than nine psychiatrists for every 100,000 Canberra residents.
It is an issue the Huxtable family know all too well, which they said added to the difficulty of an already painful time.
“It got to the point where she just would not go to school and she would be curled up in a ball in her room, wouldn’t speak to us, wouldn’t tell us what was going on,” her father Scott Huxtable said.
“She was depressed, she felt worthless, she felt she’d be better off dead and had no friends.”
He took his daughter to the family GP, who confirmed Sarah needed help but warned the Huxtables it could be difficult to find.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry but there’s no psychiatrist in Canberra that can see Sarah’,” Mr Huxtable said.
The family eventually found an in-patient program in Melbourne, where Sarah spent several months followed by weekly appointments with her psychiatrist.
But the distance and cost took a toll.
“It was probably $1,200 to $1,300 a week for about six months,” Mr Huxtable said.
‘About six patients a week referred to Sydney’
Dr John Saboisky has been in private practice in the ACT for more than 30 years and believes there is a critical shortage of private psychiatrists.
“Fifteen psychiatrists have left the private system in the last 15 years or so and eight of them have left in the last five years,” he said.
“GPs don’t know where to send people essentially.”
Dr Saboisky said his practice referred an average of six patients to Sydney every week.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
The chair of Canberra’s Mental Health Consumer Network, Terri Warner, said much more needed to be done to encourage private psychiatrists to live and work in Canberra.
“You’d either need to incentivise private practitioners to practice in Canberra, to move here and to expand their practices, or you would need to significantly expand public services,” she said.
But while the ACT Government has established a working group to consider the problem, ACT Mental Health executive director Katrina Bracher made clear boosting private practice was not on the Government’s radar.
“Incentivising private business is not really the role of the public mental health service,” she said.
Instead ACT Health is on a recruiting drive to draw psychiatrists to public roles.
“Some of the psychiatrists do choose to work partly in the public and partly in the private sector,” Ms Bracher said.
But Dr John Saboisky said that was still not enough to fill full-time private vacancies and that the ACT needed six additional full-time private psychiatrists to meet demand.
“There’s not only me, there’s a number of senior psychiatrists who are going to retire in the next couple of years, so there’s a real problem,” he said.
“It might get worse before it gets better.”