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French psychiatric hospitals warn of 'dire' conditions

Hospital Paul-Brousse in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif.
Hospital Paul-Brousse in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

A child psychiatrist at Paris’s Robert-Debré hospital has sounded the alarm, local media reported Saturday, while psychiatric hospital staff in Amiens continue their months-long strike.

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Employee burnout, overcapacity, chronic disorganisation, violent patients: Richard Delorme, the head of child psychiatry at Robert-Debré hospital in the French capital, has outlined the “dire” conditions he, his staff and his patients face in a letter addressed to the establishment’s upper management.

In the letter, written last month and published in part by French daily Le Monde on Saturday, Delorme claims that more than one-third of the nurses in his department are on leave for work-related injuries or sickness. As a result, schedules are disorganised and remaining staff are overworked, he wrote.

The number of patients in his child psychiatry unit has “practically quadrupled” over the last 10 years, according to Delorme. But paediatric hospital services in the Paris region have failed to acquire more beds to respond to the growing number of patients requiring hospitalisation. An “insufficiency” that Delorme attributes to “incompetence and even the refusal” to commit patients.

The letter also signalled a “significant increase” in the number of violent incidents, which totalled 64 in just half a year.

Nationwide problem

Staff at the Philippe-Pinel psychiatric hospital in Amiens, northern France, have been on strike since mid-June over poor working conditions. Many of them have camped out in tents directly in front of the hospital entrance, after having briefly occupied the local health agency office, according to media reports.

Four departments have been closed at the hospital in the last four years, leaving the rest of the facility over capacity and understaffed.

“We were told the closures were part of a shift to providing more outpatient care,” Le Monde quotes a unionised nurse as saying. “But psychiatric facilities are now over capacity. Wait times are longer, doctors are leaving.”

The nurse told the daily that the lack of resources means she can no longer help patients “with dignity”.

The strikers are demanding the creation of 60 new posts, the reopening of two shuttered departments, and the granting of tenure tracks to part-time or contractual employees.

Growing strikes

Philippe-Pinel’s staff may be inspired by recent successful strikes led by medical workers elsewhere in France. A hunger strike at Rouvray hospital near the north-western city of Rouen resulted in the creation of 30 new posts in June, while medical strikers in nearby Le Havre last month obtained 34 new posts after three weeks of mobilisation.

“Before Rouvray, we were in a stagnant slump,” Le Monde quotes psychiatric nurse and union representative Isabelle Bouligaud as saying. “But by having their demands met, they showed us that mobilising can get things accomplished.”

Bouligaud’s colleagues at the Saint-Etienne psychiatric hospital have staged multiple demonstrations over the past few weeks, according to Le Monde, including a “die-in” to demand the hiring of an additional 10 psychiatrists, 42 nurses and 15 nursing assistants. Their mobilisation comes just months after a government agency accused the hospital of “inhumane” treatment in regards to urgent care patients, an accusation hospital staff have rejected and blamed on lack of resources rather than medical incompetence.

Meanwhile, unions representing psychiatric staff from various Paris hospitals are organising an upcoming strike on 6 September.

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