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NHS is failing patients with mental health problems

Mental health funding commitments must reach frontline to improve patient experience

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The NHS is badly letting down vulnerable people with mental health problems, causing them and their families needless suffering and distress, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has warned. In its latest report it found that NHS mental healthcare staff can lack the capacity, skills and training they need to do their job effectively, and do not always have the support they need to learn from mistakes. NHS Providers said funding commitments for mental health must be met with action and must reach the frontline to improve patients’ experience.

The Ombudsman analysed more than 200 upheld complaints related to mental health. The resulting report Maintaining momentum: driving improvements in mental health care highlights five common failings that are compromising patients’ safety and dignity, and taking a ‘devastating toll’ on patients and their families:

  • Failure to diagnose and/or treat: one investigation found that a woman had a life-threatening reaction to anti-psychotic drugs given for a psychotic episode; she died after her physical symptoms were dismissed.
  • Inappropriate hospital discharge and aftercare: a young man with a complex history of mental health problems died from a drug overdose after being discharged from the local community mental health service with no care plan in place.
  • Poor risk assessment and safety practices: one young person suffering from bipolar disorder and on the autism spectrum was physically assaulted by another patient in a residential home; a risk assessment, which PHSO said ‘could have easily prevented the assault’, had not been carried out.
  • Not treating patients with dignity and/or infringing human rights: an investigation found that a woman suffering from a psychotic episode was not given sanitary products so she was forced to use a plastic cup while menstruating.
  • Poor communication with the patient and/or their family or carers: a woman with a history of bipolar disorder had her newborn baby taken from her unnecessarily and without explanation, causing her immense distress.
PHSO Rob Behrens, said: “This report shows the harrowing impact that failings in mental healthcare can have on patients and their families. Too many patients are not being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and this is further compounded by poor complaint handling.”

PHSO said the findings provide fresh impetus to deliver on the recommendations set out in the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, and reinforce conclusions made by the Care Quality Commission in 2017.

NHS Providers argued that the findings reveal a system ‘under intolerable pressure’ and show that funding commitments for mental health need to be met with action and must reach the frontline to improve the experience for patients.

Deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said: “There is a growing gap between demand for mental health services and the level of funding and staff needed to deliver them. Every patient deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and feel confident in raising issues with their care should they need to. As the number of mental health nurses continues to fall, they must be given the support and tools they need to deliver high-quality care for all.

“The Ombudsman, the CQC and others have set out where services need to learn from mistakes. It is vital that we continue to tackle injustices faced by those seeking mental health care. Funding commitments for mental health services must be met with action and must reach the frontline to improve the experience for patients.”

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