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By Anna van Praagh
7:32PM GMT 07 Feb 2015
After a number of suicides among people let down by NHS mental-health services, one family tells Anna van Praagh why things must change.
When Linda Jones received a call from her distraught husband, one cold day in December 2008, to say that their beloved 17-year-old son, Matthew, had committed suicide in his bedroom, she was inconsolable, as any mother would be. But she was not surprised.
Matthew, who died from asphyxia, had been chronically depressed since he was 13, and had attempted suicide before.
In the weeks running up to his death, Mrs Jones, 61, a former civil servant, and her husband, Roger, also 61, a barber, who lived in Thornton, near Blackpool, had kept him under almost constant supervision, so frightened were they for him. They had begged the authorities for help, believing their son should be sectioned for his own safety. But, despite the chronic nature of Matthew’s mental illness, they felt abandoned and let down.
The despair the Joneses feel at the state of Britain’s mental-health services is becoming ever more prevalent. Only last week, we heard the harrowing story of Kim Lindfield, a 27-year-old charity worker, who committed suicide on a ward at Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, after a catalogue of missed opportunities in her care.
It was also reported that the health service ombudsman found that Stephen Foster, 48, a Norfolk author who committed suicide days after being discharged from hospital, had been “let down” by the two NHS trusts. Trezza Azzopardi, his partner, the Booker-shortlisted novelist, described the hospital trust’s behaviour as “arrogant, dismissive and shambolic”.
Then there was the harrowing story of Jacqueline Wilson, 42, a mother of three, who killed herself in Accident and Emergency in hospital in Lancashire last month after being left alone in a side room, despite her distressed state and history of suicide attempts.
The statistics make equally disquieting reading. According to recent research by the Mental Health Policy Group, mental illness accounts for 23 per cent of the total impact of ill health but only gets 13 per cent of the NHS budget. The number of beds for mental- health patients has fallen by 8 per cent since 2011, according to a Care Quality Commission report, and last year, 236 young people with mental-health problems were placed in police cells because of a shortage of beds.
Even more are treated miles from their homes because of chronic shortages of beds for in-patient care.
“The psychiatric system is in meltdown due to the long-term relentless agenda to close psychiatric beds to save costs and treat everyone, however severely disturbed or in crisis, under the care of already overstretched and demoralised community home- treatment teams,” says Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane. “It is no coincidence that the suicide rate has more than doubled for patients being treated by these teams in the last few years. At Sane, we witness daily the impact of the failures of the psychiatric services on patients, families and front-line mental-health professionals. In many places, it has led to a situation which is both cruel and inhumane, with unnecessary suffering on all sides.”
Mrs Jones saw at first hand the desperate situation facing people with mental-health problems. “The first time we had any inkling there was a problem with our son was one winter’s morning in 2004, when Matthew was just 13,” she says. “We were getting ready to take him to school and he just flew into Roger’s arms and completely broke down, clinging to him and sobbing. He told us he was being bullied at school and that he was self-harming. We were horrified – completely distraught.”
Their GP referred Matthew to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), where staff said they would be in touch to arrange an appointment.
After four months, Matthew was much worse, regularly tearful and withdrawn and continuing to self-harm, but, despite calling them endlessly, Mrs Jones had heard nothing from CAMHS. In despair, she took Matthew to the centre in Blackpool to demand an appointment.
He saw a consultant who put him on anti-depressants and arranged a fortnightly session with a counsellor. “My little boy was very ill and very frightened,” says Mrs Jones. “He was suffering from terrible hallucinations, where he thought walls were closing in on him. He’d scream and shout in terror. He had regular panic attacks. The only way I could calm him would be to lie on the floor with him and hold him as he wept.”
When Matthew was 15, he attempted suicide but told his mother what he had done. He was taken to hospital and referred back to CAMHS.
A few months later, his consultant retired and his counsellor left for another job. Despite Mrs Jones begging for Matthew to be assigned another counsellor, she was told he wouldn’t be, with no explanation. At each quarterly consultant session, he would be seen by a different locum doctor.
“Once, Matthew asked one of the locums, ‘Which drugs am I on?’ ” remembers Mrs Jones. “The doctor just didn’t know. Matthew said, ‘How can you help me when you haven’t even bothered to look at my notes?’ ”
Matthew’s behaviour was becoming increasingly frightening. Once, he disappeared from school and came back hours later, having lacerated his neck and face with a knife. “Roger and I were beside ourselves – we didn’t know what to do,” says Mrs Jones. “I didn’t dare sleep as Matthew was often up in the night and I was terrified he was going to commit suicide. He started to say he couldn’t go on, he couldn’t stand school. In the day, he would go to his room and just sob. I’ll never forget the sound of it. It was heartbreaking.
“I kept asking for a counsellor for Matthew, but we couldn’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone, and felt we were just being passed from pillar to post. Then we were told that, at 16, Matthew was going to be transferred to adult mental-health services so we should wait to deal with them.”
After the transfer, things went from bad to worse. At an assessment in 2007, he was told they thought he had only mild depression and would need to find his own counsellor because they had a two-year waiting list. He stopped taking his medication, and because he was now classed as an adult, his new consultant said there was nothing they could do.
His parents were also told they would no longer be informed about his care because of confidentiality laws.
In October 2008, when Matthew was 17, he tried again to take his own life. After he was discharged from hospital, Matthew was admitted voluntarily to Parkwood Hospital in Blackpool for adult in-patient mental care. “The atmosphere in that place was harrowing,” remembers Mrs Jones. “Matthew was by far the youngest person there, and it was a completely inappropriate environment for someone his age. He was terrified of the other patients, and didn’t dare leave his room. It was incredibly noisy and overcrowded, and Matthew only saw a doctor once in the six days he was there.”
Back at home, he withdrew further into himself, spending more time in his room. “He frequently said he wanted to die,” says Mrs Jones. “One night he sat on the floor and grabbed my ankles, tears rolling down his face, and begged me to help him die. Can you imagine how it feels to hear your son say that? Words can’t describe the agony I went through.”
It transpired at the inquest that just days before his death, Matthew had told his GP he planned to commit suicide and how he was going to do it. Alarmed, the GP had called the mental-health services, who visited the house while Mrs Jones and Matthew were out.
They did not tell Mr Jones why they had called, and when they telephoned the next day, a health worker told Mrs Jones she thought Matthew was “playing games”.
“A few days later, my little boy was dead,” says Mrs Jones, her voice cracking with emotion. “We had begged for help, begged for more support. But none was forthcoming. Matthew shouldn’t have been left at home by that stage, he was a very ill young man who needed professional help.”
Barbara Taylor, an academic whose book, The Last Asylum, describes her time as a patient in one of the last Victorian mental-health asylums, Friern Hospital, formerly known as Colney Hatch, in north London, believes that the problems in the system stem from the abrupt switch in the Eighties to the care-in-the-community model.
“The principle of reliable, effective care has been undermined by so-called ‘community care’ that basically means providing people with medication and little else,” she says. “People are being left to deal with their own problems with increasingly restricted resources. The crisis is such that in-patient care is now almost entirely devoted to people who have been legally detained, so there is no longer a place for people seeking voluntary care.
“I don’t mourn the closure of the old Victorian asylums, but I do feel sad about the complete failure in treating mental illness in this country through a highly flawed community-care model.”
Sue Moore, of Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust, says: “The death of Matthew was tragic, and our continued thoughts are with Linda and her family.
“Whilst we are unable to comment on individual cases, the trust has worked hard over the number of years to improve access to its services, and in particular the transition from CAMHS to adult mental health services. Following any tragic incident such as this, the trust undertakes a full investigation and subsequently implements any improvements that can be made to ensure high standards of care are reached and maintained.”
Mrs Jones, who is now a publicly elected governor on the board of the trust to try to raise awareness of mental-health issues, is alarmed that since her son’s death, she is not seeing any improvements in the way mental-health patients are treated.
“I’m constantly watching children like Matthew be failed by the system, just like he was,” she says. “I feel so frustrated because things haven’t changed. If anything, due to funding cuts, they’ve got worse.”