Original article no longer available
By Mona McAlinden
Feb 13, 2005
NHS Highlands, which serves an area with the highest rate of suicide in Scotland, has been accused of ignoring cries for help from suicidal men who later took their own lives.
The allegations are made in a BBC Frontline Scotland documentary, Missing Highlanders, which will be broadcast tomorrow. It investigates the suicide “epidemic” among young men in the region and possible reasons behind the tragedies.
The programme uncovers a culture where men shy away from talking about their problems and a care system which is too under pressure to heed them.
One of the families featured is that of Stuart Mutter, a 41-year-old father-of-one, who killed himself in September last year, just yards from a psychiatric ward at Stirling Royal Infirmary.
Doctors had prescribed anti-depressants after Stuart lost his job on the oil rigs and split from his long-term partner.
His father, Peter Mutter, admitted Stuart to Newcraigs, a Highlands specialist psychiatric centre, after becoming increasingly alarmed at the medication’s effect on his son’s mind. Stuart was discharged from Newcraigs the day before he took his own life.
Peter Mutter said he felt badly let down by the hospital and claimed his son’s medical notes proved that professionals ignored his call for help.
He said: “The whole system let him down. Right from the start, they didn’t get the family involved at all. They could’ve had all the background they wanted on my son. He had social problems, but putting him on the happy pills that supposedly cure everything wouldn’t have brought back his partner or job.
“I think doctors should have been trying to deal with the underlying issues rather than giving him high doses of medication known to cause suicidal thoughts as a side-effect. To give drugs to someone with suicidal tendencies is like doctors giving an alcoholic a bottle of whisky.”
The family maintains that, despite Stuart repeatedly telling doctors that he was thinking of killing himself, doctors failed to assess the suicide risk, though they did carry out a risk assessment on what would happen if Stuart did not take his medicine.
“Stuart told them he had a rope in the car – which he did – and that he was going to Stirling to hang himself,” said his father. “But because he couldn’t identify the tree, the medical notes said he had not given much thought to a plan. To talk about ‘a rope’ and ‘a tree’ in Stirling seems a clear cut plan to me.
“Stuart had already told his sister that the doctors didn’t believe him. But when I read that in his notes, it crucified me. In the end, he did exactly what he told them he was going to do.
“To add insult to injury, a hospital spokesman told a local newspaper that families need to be more aware of suicide and learn to spot the signs,” he added.
“But my son was telling them he was going to do it and the hospital ignored it.”
The documentary also reveals that although Stuart did not want to leave Newcraigs, he was discharged for a final time from the Inverness hospital after a two-week period. His discharge note mentioned his suicidal tendencies. The family later found a letter informing him that he had been placed on a waiting list to see a community psychiatric nurse.
Mary Scanlon, a Conservative list MSP for the Highlands, is a long-standing critic of mental health services in the area, which saw 50 suicides last year alone.
She said: “The monitoring of the patient’s journey from the hospital to the community is a serious concern. Stuart Mutter was a man crying for help. The big question is why was he discharged from Newcraigs only to be put on a waiting list to see a psychiatric nurse when it was known he was having suicidal thoughts.”
Scanlon last week visited Newcraigs with the newly-appointed chairman of NHS Highlands and feels confident that the issues raised in the documentary will now begin to be addressed. She added: “There have been cases in the past where lessons haven’t been learned from mistakes. I hope that Stuart Mutter, and others, haven’t lost their lives for nothing.”
The programme also contains allegations by another family from the Highlands that their 22-year-old son would still be alive today had Newcraigs treated his depression as well as providing support for his drink problem.
NHS Highlands said it was providing quality care and investing to improve services for the future. It is conducting a review of Mutter’s treatment.
Chief executive Dr Roger Gibbins said: “It seems a very black-and-white case. But these things are always more complex than that. Staff make decisions based on a risk assessment, taking into account all sorts of factors. That will be a key thing we’ll look at in the incident review.”
Frontline Scotland’s Missing Highlanders is on BBC1 tomorrow at 7.30pm
13 February 2005