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Lack of hospital beds force thousands of mentally ill adults to travel miles

09-Feb-16
Article By: Melissa McAlees, News Editor

The practice of sending mental health patients long distances for treatment should end, a Commission has said, as experts brand some services ‘potentially dangerous’.

Each month, around 500 adults with mental health problems are estimated to travel over 50km (over 30 miles) from their own homes, to be admitted to hospitals.

These long-distance admissions are due to difficulties in finding acute inpatient beds or suitable alternative services in the area where they live.

The new independent Commission, led by Lord Nigel Crisp and supported by the Royal College of Psychiatrists has called for the practice to end by October 2017. Lord Crisp said: “It is time to end the difference in standards between mental and physical illnesses.

“People with severe mental illnesses need to be able to find care just as quickly as people suffering from physical illnesses - and they shouldn't have to travel long distances to do so.”

In 2013/14, 1.7m people in England used mental health services, with 105,270 admitted to hospital. As of 2011/12, the NHS spend on adult mental health services in England was £6.63bn.

Government pledge a maximum four-hour wait for hospital admission or home treatment by 2017

The Government has asked the NHS to cut unnecessary out-of-area treatments.

At the same time, the Commission wants a new four-hour wait target to be introduced for admission or acceptance for home-based treatment following assessment for acute mental illness.

The aim is to guarantee that patients with mental health problems are treated equally to those with physical problems.

A report from the Commission said: “Out of area treatments cause problems for patients and for their families and carers. Geographical separation from a patient's support networks can leave them feeling isolated and delay recovery.

“Moreover, mental health personnel from the patients' home areas have difficulties in visiting them with the result that they may well spend longer as inpatients than they would have done if admitted locally.”

The Commission also said there were major problems for adults being able to access acute care, due to a lack of funding and inadequate staffing. It said: ‘Access to acute care for severely ill adult mental health patients is inadequate nationally and, in some cases, potentially dangerous’.

Issues with suitable community alternatives to admitting people to hospital were also outlined. The report said: ‘Members of the Commission were told that significant numbers of patients were admitted because of a lack of alternatives and many also had their discharges delayed’.

Professor Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Everyone agrees that it is a scandal that patients with serious mental health problems who need admission can end up being sent anywhere from Cornwall to Cumbria in a search for a bed. And yet it continues.

“In particular we stand alongside Lord Crisp in asking that there is a new pledge for a maximum four hour wait for admission or home treatment by 2017, and that the unacceptable practice of sending seriously sick patients around the country is ended by the same date. If we were talking strokes, heart attacks or cancer, we wouldn't even have to ask.”

‘Mental health remains a neglected service’

Commenting on the report, Brian Dow, director of external affairs at Rethink Mental Illness, said: “If you have a physical health emergency you expect to be treated quickly, not sent miles from home.

“So why is this acceptable if you have a mental health emergency? Mental health remains a neglected service. The Government has promised to invest £600m during this Parliament which is incredibly welcome, but to put that into context, almost £600m was cut from mental health services in the last Parliament, so essentially it's filling up what was previously drained out."

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, added: “The fundamental cause of the failings, neglect and risks taken with the lives of psychiatric patients is the relentless agenda adopted by successive Governments to close down psychiatric beds and units and replace them with community teams.

“Patients are also being held in police cells, or shunted hundreds of miles across the country. In one case known to us, the parents of one 18-year-old girl have travelled 25,000 miles over the last two years to visit her in four different psychiatric units because there is no psychiatric bed in Cornwall.

"The Government promised a revolution in psychiatric services last month, but no money to replace the beds already closed, nor any guarantee that the £10m funds pledged will reach the frontline."

Mental health minister Alistair Burt commented: “It's crucial that people get the mental health care they need as quickly and as close to home as possible.

"Last year, I asked NHS England to reduce unnecessary out of area treatments, and eliminate their inappropriate use. We agree that there should be standards for what people can expect from mental health treatment, and when.

"NHS England and others will be working on this over the coming months.”

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