Wards are overcrowded and filthy, drug-dealing and harassment are rife

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Daily existence for the thousands of patients in secure mental hospitals and psychiatric wards can be degrading and at times frightening. The wards are supposed to provide a caring and therapeutic environment for the 40,000 men and women who every year are either detained under the Mental Health Act or admit themselves as voluntary patients.

Daily existence for the thousands of patients in secure mental hospitals and psychiatric wards can be degrading and at times frightening. The wards are supposed to provide a caring and therapeutic environment for the 40,000 men and women who every year are either detained under the Mental Health Act or admit themselves as voluntary patients.

The reality is that while some mental health trusts do provide appropriate treatment, the majority of wards are dirty, unsafe places where vulnerable patients shuffle up and down the corridors as they wait for therapy. Patients are frequently exposed to drug dealing, abuse and sexual harassment.

More than half the current and former patients who responded to a survey by Mind, the mental health charity, believed their care in hospital had failed to speed their recovery. One-third said it had made their health worse. The charity was told of a suicidal patient who had been left in a room with a broken window. Another found that someone had urinated in their bedroom.

This paper's campaign began by highlighting the plight of hundreds of men and women detained in secure hospitals such as Broadmoor and Ashworth, even though they are for eligible for transfer to a less severe regime. They have been locked up for years, effectively jailed, because of a shortage of beds elsewhere.

The fate of black and ethnic minority patients within the mental health system is particularly bleak. Since 1980, at least 15 have died either in psychiatric care or while restrained by the police. David "Rocky" Bennett died after nurses pinned him down on the floor of a psychiatric ward for 25 minutes in 1998. A report into his death said that institutional racism was a "festering abscess" within mental health services.

In response to the Rocky Bennett case, the Commission for Health Improvement (CHI), the government body which carries out NHS inspections, will next week carry out the first national census of all ethnic minority mental health patients.

NHS trusts are also addressing the issue of mixed-sex wards, a source of huge anxiety for female patients. According to government figures, 99 per cent of NHS trusts now provide single-sex sleeping accommodation.

However, CHI says that the gulf in performance between highly and lowly rated trusts is actually widening. This means that many men and women who end up on psychiatric wards are still not receiving the care that they need to aid their recovery.

Richard Brook, head of Mind, believes that there is still a crisis. "Acute services have seen some notable improvements in some areas but it remains a postcode lottery," he said. "We still don't have a therapeutic service, and in some parts of the country it's still a crisis situation and anyone who says otherwise is not being honest."

Marjorie Wallace, head of the mental health charity Sane, said vacancies for untrained staff are increasing while the number of beds is falling dramatically. "The new mental health laws would have done nothing to protect people like Brian Cherry or Denis Finnegan," she said.

"People have been discharged by tribunals from wards which are overcrowded and untherapeutic."

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