Mental health services provided in emergency departments

Hospital emergency departments (EDs) play a role in treating mental illness. People seek mental health-related services in EDs for a variety of reasons, often as an initial point of contact or for after-hours care (Morphet et al. 2012).

State and territory health authorities collect a core set of nationally comparable information on most public hospital ED presentations in their jurisdiction, which is compiled annually into the National Non-Admitted Patient Emergency Department Care Database (NNAPEDCD).

Mental health-related ED presentations in this section are defined as presentations to public hospital EDs that have a principal diagnosis of Mental and behavioural disorders. More details about NNAPEDCD and identifying mental health presentations are available in the data source section.

From February 2020, a range of restrictions on travel, business, social interaction and border control have been introduced to prevent and reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This impacted the overall number of presentations to the ED, with a decrease of 1.4% between 2018–19 and 2019–20, compared to a 4.2% increase between 2017–18 and 2018–19 (AIHW 2021a). In contrast, the number of mental health presentations increased in 2019–20 compared with the previous year. Within this section, we have introduced some new data tables to explore the impact of COVID-19 on mental health-related presentations to the ED.

The AIHW’s Suicide and self-harm monitoring website has information relating to self-harm hospitalisations; and there is a section of Mental health services in Australia dedicated to the mental health impacts of COVID-19. Information on all ED presentations are available on the MyHospitals website.

Data downloads:

Mental health services provided in emergency departments 2019–20 tables (816KB XLSX)

Mental health services provided in emergency departments 2019–20 (545KB PDF)

Mental health services provided in emergency departments interactive data

Data source and key concepts related to this section

Data coverage includes the time period 2004–05 to 2019–20. This section was last updated in May 2021.

Key points

  • 310,471 presentations to public Australian EDs were mental health-related in 2019–20, which was 3.8% of all presentations. This is a slightly higher proportion than in 2018–2019 where mental health-related ED presentations comprised 3.6% of all presentations.
  • 77.1% of these mental health-related ED presentations were classified with a triage status of either Urgent (patient should be seen within 30 minutes) or Semi-urgent (within 60 minutes).

  • 68.0% of mental health-related ED presentations were seen on time (based on triage status) compared with 74% of all ED presentations.

  • 55.1% of mental health-related ED presentations had a principal diagnosis of either Mental and behavioural disorders due to psychoactive substance use or Neurotic, stress-related and somatoform disorders.

Service provision

States and territories

In 2019–20, there were 310,471 public hospital ED presentations with a mental health-related principal diagnosis recorded, representing 3.8% of all ED presentations. This proportion is slightly higher than in previous years as a result of the overall number of ED presentations decreasing due to COVID-19 restrictions and the number of mental health presentations increasing from 2018–19 levels. South Australia had the highest mental health-related proportion of ED presentations (5.0%) and New South Wales had the lowest proportion (3.3%) (Figure ED.1).

Nationally, the rate of mental health-related ED presentations was 121.6 per 10,000 population. The Northern Territory had the highest rate (285.5) and Victoria the lowest (97.7).

Figure ED.1: Mental health-related presentations to public emergency department, by state and territories, 2019–20

Vertical bar chart showing the proportion of mental health-related emergency department presentations in public hospitals by state or territory in 2019–20. South Australia had the highest per cent of mental health-related ED presentations accounting for 5.0% of all ED presentations, followed by 4.2% in the Northern Territory, 4.1% in Queensland and Western Australia, 4.0% in Tasmania, 3.7% in the Australian Capital Territory, 3.6% in Victoria and 3.3% in New South Wales. The national per cent of mental health-related ED presentations was 3.8%. Refer to Table ED.1.

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