Mental health service closures

Whilst working within mental health and mental capacity law, I’ve found that there are many situations which really strike me personally. In particular, I have developed an interest in wrongdoings within mental health services, because I can see the situation from the perspective of the outpatient service user, having been involved with services since 2012.

Access to services is a huge issue at the moment. I was rather lucky in that I was able to gain access to services quite quickly through IAPT, though, once my course of CBT had ended, I was basically left in the dark.

I read something on twitter the other day from a service user, stating that he’d missed an appointment because the letter from the hospital had taken so long to arrive. I mean, in 2016, how is that still happening? It may seem like a small thing to some, most likely to the hospital, but these appointments, in times of both crisis and calm, provide routine and stability for service users.  When I was making regular trips to appointments with mental health services, it gave me a sense of comfort just to know that I was doing something. Had I missed an appointment because of the appointment letter being sent by carrier pigeon, particularly with my anxiety when it was at its worst, that would have been one of the worst things that could happen; from the outside looking in, it seems that mental health services can’t empathise with this or many others’ experiences.

Access to inpatient services is where this real division of interest is shown. We’re all aware of the distinct lack of beds within mental health units, which are needed by those who are usually in crisis and cannot be treated effectively in the community. Yet despite this known issue, more and more mental health units and hospitals are closing every year.

According to The Kings Fund, ‘Mental health under pressure’ (November 2015) 40% of mental health trusts experienced a reduction in income in 2013/14 and 2014/15. The analysis by The Kings Fund confirms what many of us interested in this area already know – there are more and more people being detained under the Mental Health Act (a 9.8% increase in 2014/15 compared to the previous year); a lot of these actually receive poor care, particularly when in crisis (only 14% of patients say that they received appropriate care in a crisis); the number of beds is decreasing, meaning that services cannot meet the demand; and, despite this, mental health units continue to be closed down. So, what is the outcome from that? People are either left without the help that they need, or are detained in a hospital somewhere far from home, far from normality, and far from comfort. According to a Freedom of Information request by the Community Care and BBC News, 4,447 patients were sent out of area by 37 NHS mental health providers in 2014/15. 88% of the 4,447 were sent out of area due to beds being full.

I have been looking in to closures of mental health units and, even if you just give it a quick google, you can see the scale of the problem. By way of example, in October 2015 Bootham Park Hospital, York’s only public adult mental health hospital, was closed following a report by the CQC, with 5 days’ notice being given. How many people did this affect? 30 inpatients and 400 outpatients. When something like this happens, particularly with such short notice, it must be like being abducted, and ripped away from everything you knew. In February 2016, Outpatient services resumed, after a huge amount of local pressure. However, for those patients in crisis, requiring inpatient care, they, and their families, are expected to travel 50 miles.

50 miles isn’t the worst it could be. There are instances of people being placed 300 miles from home. But, when these patients are very unwell, to be placed in hospital in a completely new area, in my opinion, surely can’t help them in the short term. Whilst detained under the Mental Health Act, a patient can be granted section 17 leave from their Responsible Clinician. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to enjoy leave in an area you have never been before. Leave is a way of readying patients for discharge, but, certainly for those with anxiety, going out in the community in an unknown area would be incredibly daunting, and could even be a bit of a step-back. It’s hard to see how having leave in a town 100, 200, 300 miles from home is going to prepare you for living in your community.

Another example of mental health unit closures, resulting in patients having to travel, and one that is actually happening right now, is The Welland Centre, in Market Harborough. I came across this closure in an article a couple of weeks ago – The Welland Centre, which provides adult community health services, hosts clinics for up to 450 patients. That’s 80 patients each week and approximately 4000 appointments each year, and patients will be expected to travel elsewhere to access the help that they need.

One patient of the service has developed a petition to save the service – https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/131744 – which currently has 764 signatures, one of those, of course, being my own. Should the Welland Centre close, patients would be expected to travel for one hour and a quarter to reach the service. For those who do not drive, like myself, this is two bus journeys. When I was having regular appointments with mental health services at Warwick Uni, I had to travel by bus from where I lived in Leamington Spa onto campus. Sometimes, when I was feeling particularly low, I simply couldn’t do it. I had so much anxiety around the University campus, the bus, the students, that I physically couldn’t get on the bus to get to the appointment sometimes. I probably never would have attended any appointments if I had to take two buses.

Now, putting my legal hat on, one big issue for me in situations involving closures of services, is that patients, families, and those who simply have an interest, do not know that the law can assist. When people are informed that their service, usually a service they have used for many years, is closing, they can feel alone. People generally don’t know (and, to be honest, why would they) that there are possible ways to legally challenge the decision to close the service – to go back to Bootham Park hospital in York (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/14/the-nhs-mental-health-hospital-closed-with-just-five-days-warning), lawyers are representing the families of some former patients of the hospital and are seeking a judicial review of the “forced closure” of the service.

Judicial review is where a case is taken to the High Court, and it is argued that a decision of a public body is unlawful. This could be that the body has acted beyond its powers, or has not taken something into account etc. Obviously, there is no guarantee that any challenge would be successful, but I think that it is vital that there is something that can be done legally, at least to try to stop any decision to close a service.

That is why I really enjoy working within this area of law. Despite all of the issues with mental health services, and despite the general thought that lawyers are cold and can’t help real people, I like to think that in this area we actually could make a difference and, if a difference can’t be made, it is always nice to say we tried.