The Psychiatric Nurses' Association has expressed concern about assaults on staff by some patients in acute psychiatric units.

Speaking at the opening of its annual conference in Athlone, PNA General Secretary Des Kavanagh said there was a need to reduce avoidable harm in mental health services.

He called for an independent investigation into the management of the acute psychiatric unit at Galway University Hospital.

Mr Kavanagh said that in the first three months of this year, there have been 34 assaults on staff there, which was “an incredible record”.

He said that violence was not synonymous with mental illness and the numbers of mentally ill people who were violent was quite small.

But he said all adverse events need to be properly investigated.

Mr Kavanagh said it was not acceptable that a person who because of their illness, poses a threat to their family or community, can maintain the right to liberty and the right to choose not to take their medication, irrespective of the implications.

He also criticised the HSE for cases where nurses who were assaulted had their pay cut as a result of sick leave and where the Serious Physical Assault Scheme was not operated by the HSE as it should be.

The association is also seeking full restoration of pay, without a demand for more productivity.

Mr Kavanagh said his members were not in the business of paying the Government twice for the same benefit.

He said there must be a meaningful initial repayment, along with a roadmap to full pay restoration.

The union estimates an income loss of around 23% for psychiatric nurses.

Responding to comments last week by Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, Mr Kavanagh said that his 7,500 members had been giving more productivity for years and had been worked to the bone during the recession.

The union has also called for an independent review of the implementation of the Government's mental health strategy 'A Vision for Change' published in 2006.

Ann O'Connor, the HSE's National Director for Mental Health, told the conference there were 300 vacant mental health posts that the executive can not fill. 

She said funding was available for the posts and the HSE is concerned about the vacancies.

An overseas campaign is planned to recruit psychiatric nurses.