Recently I spent sixteen hours trying to get an acute mental health assessment for a someone. The details of the case are not what matter here, but I want to talk about what I learnt from the process, and to do that I’ll need to give some context. It is necessarily vague and some information has also been changed to protect confidentiality.
However, as a pen picture it is fair to say that there was a combination of a severe deterioration in mental health with risk to others (the person had bizarre beliefs that led them to want to injure/kill people within particular demographics). The person did not want any mental health input, but I felt that the risk issues were so acute that it was necessary to override the lack of consent and request that an urgent mental health act assessment be undertaken. The other members of the household were keen for this to happen, as were various professionals who were already involved from the health, social care and criminal justice sectors. The person was open to a locality mental health service, but after the initial assessment identified various needs nobody had been allocated to undertake the work, so although it was an open case there had been no service for several months.
So, I rang the local service to ask for a psychiatric assessment. It wasn’t an area where I have worked before or a service that I had any prior experience with so I rang the number on their website. I explained I felt that there was acute risk coupled with obvious decline in mental health, but a lack of consent to treatment, so I enquired what kind of urgent services could be triggered, suggesting that the person involved would be difficult to approach and it would almost certainly be necessary to undertake a mental health act assessment and an admission against the person’s will might be necessary to safeguard others. And that is where I hit a brick wall.
The local service told me they were not commissioned to have a crisis service, and that unless the person involved had self-harmed they did not meet the urgent criteria. No amount of risk to others, or deterioration in mental health would qualify for their service, unless there was self-harm, or the person presented at A&E themselves, or we waited the timescales of their routine service (which had no capacity to allocate a worker). Pointing out the NICE guidance required a same-day response didn’t shift their position. Highlighting the risk to others or the individual likewise seemed to go unheard. The Approved Mental Health Professionals team said that the person met their criteria, but they could not get involved unless there was a psychiatrist from the locality team who had seen the person and would identify the bed if it was necessary to use a section. The psychiatrists said they were not resourced to go out and see people, and that they were not prepared to put themselves at risk by attending a person who presented a risk to others, even though I had arranged for the police to be present. They said the only way they would see the person was if the police used section 136 to bring them to the hospital as a place of safety, where they could then provide an assessment. They suggested that we call 999 to ask for ambulance and police assistance. The ambulance and police said they were not there to provide transport, and if the person was calm and inside the house, they did not present an imminent threat that required removing them using section 136.
The next day I phoned the local mental health team again and asked to speak to someone senior to raise my concerns about the case. The duty clinician called me back several hours later. I got asked “what do you expect us to do on a Friday afternoon?” and “why is this our problem?” and then got talked over loudly again and again as I tried to explain the issues with risk and mental health. I asked politely four times for the person to stop talking over me, without effect and then asked her name. She refused to tell me and ultimately hung up on me. Her service wouldn’t tell me who I had spoken to, or give me any information about the complaints procedure beyond telling me to write a letter to their postal address. I asked to speak to a service manager. Unavailable. To a psychiatrist. Unavailable. I asked for someone to call me back. at 4.45 I got a return call with the same content as the previous conversations. No crisis service. Doesn’t meet their urgent criteria. A&E, the police bringing in under a 136 or nothing. I wrote a report giving all of my concerns to the whole network in writing.
In supervision I talked about my anxiety about a serious incident, and my fear that nothing would be done, and everyone would pass the buck. I was supported that my concerns were legitimate, and made the decision to try to take it up the chain of command. I called the department again. Then I called the directors of the trust involved, and the complaints department. I made calls all morning with no response, having already had no response for over a fortnight to concerns I felt were so acute they needed a same day response. So I called the CQC.
The CQC were very helpful, and made me feel that it was the right place to raise my concerns. I feel that the systemic issues will eventually be addressed because of the CQC having sufficient power to influence commissioning decisions, but that doesn’t help in the timescale of the individual. Likewise someone near the top of the trust concerned did get back to me the next day, and want to learn from the process (perhaps motivated by awareness of the CQC being involved). Hopefully we’ll look at the pathway, and address the various issues that my experience flagged up*. But again, that’s fixing the stable door after the horse has bolted. At the individual level, the outcome was disappointing. The person is moving to a different area within the next few weeks, and the service have decided that means that they don’t have to do anything, whilst the new area will only act if concerns are raised once the person arrives.
So the story doesn’t have an ending yet. There wasn’t a happily ever after, because the service I felt was required within a matter of hours hasn’t been provided, despite several weeks having passed. However, there hasn’t been a serious incident either. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the former happens before the latter.
But it was a pretty weird experience for me. Normally, if I raise a concern people take that pretty seriously. I’m a fairly senior clinician with the titles Dr and Consultant by my signature. I’ve been an expert witness in 200+ court cases. And I’ve had 20 years of experience against which to judge risk and after 16 years in the NHS I also think I have realistic expectations of services. I’ve never made a complaint about an NHS service before, and I hope I never have to again, but I didn’t feel like I had any other option. I was genuinely horrified to see defensive service specifications being used to deny a person with clear acute mental health needs a service. I felt like my concerns were ignored and dismissed because they were inconvenient and didn’t fit within existing pathways.
I’m not sure that my involvement did any good at all for the person in the end, despite spending hours and hours on the phone and writing emails and letters. But it made me wonder, what if I wasn’t there? What if there wasn’t someone with a title and qualifications and NICE guidelines to cite to try and agitate for the services to do the right thing? What if a family member or friend of the individual rather than a professional was trying to express their concerns? Why are the barriers so high when it comes to accessing mental health services? Why have services got specifications that exclude people in serious need? Why are the processes to raise concerns so opaque and so slow? Why don’t services join up better? Why are services always reactive and so rarely proactive? Are age, gender, race or other demographic characteristics a barrier to accessing treatment? Why are we still so far from parity between mental and physical health services? Why does mental health still not have the kind of services there are for acute physical health needs? Most of all, why does common sense and compassion get lost in pointless bureaucracy when it comes to referral pathways and criteria?
I used to be so proud to be part of the NHS. Now I wonder about what it has become. Is this just what is left after decades of cuts and reorganisations, or was I always a roll of the dice away from hitting a dead end?
*this was never followed up, so in retrospect it seems it was just platitudes to shut me up