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Is enough done for vulnerable mental health patients?

November 3, 2022
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Written by Peter Rigby, Director of Medical Negligence

Written by Lee Reilly, medical negligence solicitor.

Since 1992, every April has been a designated stress awareness month. So it is only right that we should all take a moment to make sure that we and the people around us, both at home and at work, are happy, health and coping well.

While reflecting on ourselves and those close to us, it is also worth considering the struggles those with mental health problems face when accessing help through the NHS.

Last month a scathing report compiled by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, identified that mental health patients are suffering serious harm and are, in some cases, tragically, dying, because of failings in the NHS treatment that they have been provided.

The report is based on the analysis of over 200 complaints made by or on behalf of people with mental ill health, which the Ombudsman either upheld or partially upheld, over a three and a half year period from April 2014 to October 2017. While arguably a modest sample size, it reflects recent complaints and should be taken seriously.

The report points to five common failings which affect mental health Trusts, including:

  1. The failure to diagnose and / or treat patients: one investigation found that a woman was treated with anti-psychotic drugs for a psychotic episode but had a life-threatening reaction to them. Her physical symptoms were dismissed and, catastrophically, she sadly died;
  2. The inappropriate hospital discharge and aftercare of patients: in another case, a young man who had a complex history of mental health problems died from a drug overdose after being discharged from the local community mental health service, without a care plan in place;
  3. Poor risk assessment and safety practices: the report reveals how a young person suffering from bipolar disorder and on the autism spectrum was physically assaulted by another patient in a residential home, causing them immense fear and distress. A risk assessment, which could have easily prevented the assault, was not carried out;
  4. Not treating patients with dignity and / or infringing human rights: another investigation found that a woman suffering from a psychotic episode was not given sanitary products while she was menstruating so she was forced to use a plastic cup. This was deeply humiliating for her and did not respect her dignity and well-being; and
  5. Poor communication with the patient and / or their family or carers: the report reveals how a woman who had a history of bipolar disorder had her new born baby taken from her unnecessarily and without explanation, causing her immense distress.

It is both enormously sad and clearly wrong that some of the most vulnerable amongst us, when seeking care from the NHS, are let down.  These failings have deep, wide ranging effects and not only cause hurt or injury to those with mental health conditions but also to the people around those patients, such as family, friends and colleagues.

When considering the findings in the report it is worth remembering that mental health provision became a Government priority in 2017.  The government’s plan was to create a vision for transforming mental health care in England.  The interest in transforming services stemmed out of the independent report of the Mental Health Taskforce, Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, published in February 2016.

But if changes are to be made they need to be implemented both carefully and without delay to ensure patients are getting the best care possible and don’t suffer preventable harm.

In summary, more needs to be done to prevent harm coming to those that make use of the health service when they experience mental health problems.  April – Stress Awareness Month is, if nothing else, an excellent opportunity to reflect on our own mental health and that of those around us.

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