One in five people feel ‘unsafe’ in NHS mental health service care

Author: Caroline White

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One in five people felt unsafe while in the care of an NHS mental health service in England, reveals a survey of the experiences of people with mental health issues, published today by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

Over half of respondents also said they experienced treatment delays, while four in 10 (42%) said that they waited too long to be diagnosed.

When asked to share details of their experiences, one survey participant said that after they attempted to take their own life, they waited over six months to be referred to a specialist mental health team. Another said they felt they had been “talked over and about, not to”.

Despite the concerns raised by patients about their treatment in the survey, almost half (48%) said they would be unlikely to complain if they were unhappy with the service provided.

But almost 70% said NHS staff hadn’t told them how to make a complaint. And one in three (32%) said they didn’t think their complaint would be taken seriously. One in four also feared that complaining would affect how they were treated. The main reason given for not complaining (40%) was not wanting “to cause trouble.”

“It’s unacceptable that so many patients requiring mental health treatment are left feeling unsafe in the NHS, but this survey supports what we see too frequently in our casework. Patients must be supported to speak up when mistakes happen and not left scared that their treatment will be affected if they do so,” commented Ombudsman Rob Behrens.

“While the NHS in England must continue to implement its Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, it should also look now at what more is needed to transform mental health services so the people who need them get the care they deserve,” he added.

Today’s survey results are reinforced by the death of Erica Henderson who took her own life while an inpatient at 2gether NHS Foundation Trust. She was being treated for schizophrenia and epilepsy at the mental health trust and Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, but wasn’t observed regularly enough, despite having made several attempts to take her own life.

Even though she told staff at the mental health trust that her frequent epileptic seizures were contributing to her desire to self-harm, the significant risks to her safety were not properly managed. The Ombudsman found that both trusts failed to provide Miss Henderson with the care she needed, with tragic results.

In response to the Ombudsman’s findings, 2gether NHS Foundation Trust is putting in place steps to make sure its risk assessment and safety management procedures meet national guidance. It has committed to ensuring observations are embedded in its practice. Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is also reviewing the management of Miss Henderson’s medication.

The YouGov survey, commissioned by the Ombudsman, comes almost two years after the Ombudsman’s Maintaining Momentum report. The survey results suggest that people accessing treatment for mental health problems in England are continuing to experience the five service failings identified in the report.

These were: failure to diagnose and/or treat the patient; poor risk assessment and safety practices; not treating patients with dignity and/or infringing human rights; poor communication with the patient and/or their family or carers; inappropriate hospital discharge and aftercare.

The survey also follows the publication of the Ombudsman’s Missed Opportunities report last summer into the deaths of two vulnerable young men and the significant failings in their mental health care and treatment.

Sean Duggan, chief executive of the Mental Health Network, which is part of the NHS Confederation, said: “Stretched staff work tirelessly to give the best possible care, and to give service users a voice, but this report shows clearly we still need to make significant progress.
 
“The vision set out in the NHS Long Term Plan will help, but we need renewed support from government to recruit and retain the right number of people, to ensure facilities are safe and up-to-date and that legislation is appropriate.”
 
He added: “The return of the maintenance grant for student nurses is positive and the forthcoming People Plan must also have solutions to increase the supply and help us to better retain our staff.

“Mental health facilities, which are among the worst across the system, were underrepresented in the government’s capital investment plans and that needs to be put right. We also await the promised legislation to modernise the Mental Health Act which will make a big difference to ensuring that those who have reached the point of crisis receive the care they need.”

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