LOCKED mental health wards, such as the one at Dubbo Hospital, risk making patients sicker while breaching their rights according to health and legal experts.
A Queensland government decision to lock 16 state wards drew heavy criticism from the mental health sector last month.
But Dubbo's 18-bed mental health inpatient unit has locked in acute patients, voluntary and involuntary, since the unit opened.
Mental health lawyer and Melbourne University professor Bernadette McSherry said locked wards were a legal concern for both voluntary and involuntary patients.
"For voluntary patients, locked wards breach the fundamental right to liberty and security of the person and are unlawful," Professor McSherry said.
"For those who have been involuntarily detained under mental health laws, the emphasis on containment through locked wards is anti-therapeutic.
"It breaches the human rights principles set out in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which Australia has ratified."
The chief executive of mental health charity SANE, Jack Heath, said while some mental health patients needed to be contained, not all NSW hopsitals offered the least restrictive care.
"Our concern has been around this notion that you just lock people up and everybody will be better off," he said.
Mr Heath cited a 2008 UK study which showed locked wards contributed to more violence and raised the risk of self-harm by 20 per cent.
"If everyone is locked in together, as it were, that can create quite a threatening situation," he said.
"If people feel that they're being treated like criminals, that that's the environment they're going into, then they're going to be less likely to want to go back again."
The acting director for mental health in Western NSW Robyn Murray said a locked Dubbo ward provided the least restrictive care possible.
"Having a secure entry point to a facility is common in many settings within and outside health, for example, medical intensive care units," Dr Murray said.
"And for our units it means we can safely monitor and control the movement of people in and out of the units."
"Individuals whose condition means they are able to leave the unit, including those admitted voluntarily, can do so," Dr Murray stressed.
She said a secure entry helped protect patients' privacy and allowed staff to keep out people who were not supposed to be in the ward.
Mental illness accounts for roughly 3 per cent of hospitalisations in Western NSW, with 3801 hospitalisations from 2011-2012.
Other locked wards in the Western local health district include the Panorama Clinic at Bathurst Hospital and the Wollemi Unit at Orange Hospital, as well as the Lachlan and Windemere Building Units, Manara Clinic and Turon House at Bloomfield Hospital in Orange.