'Cover-up' over massive drug doses for mental patients

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UP TO to 40 women patients at Ashworth high security hospital on Merseyside have been subjected to 'massive over-medication' of powerful antipsychotic drugs and then suffered horrific side effects when the doses were suddenly reduced, senior staff have alleged.

An investigation by the Independent has confirmed that last year a team from the Mental Health Act Commission visited two of the women's wards, Herons and Elms, and reported their 'grave concern' at the high levels of medication.

The commissioners were also alarmed that high doses of antipsychotic or neuroleptic drugs - also known as major tranquillisers - were being prescribed for most patients, regardless of whether they were therapeutic. Staff allege that in some cases the drugs were used to keep the women sedated.

The visitors were also critical of the poor teamwork by those responsible for women patients' care overall, the inappropriate mix of mentally ill, psychopathically disordered and mentally impaired patients, irregular doctors' visits to the ward, the sickness rate of nursing staff, and the 'dismal' ward environment.

Three months after the visit last January the Special Hospital Services Authority announced an 'independent external advisory group' was to review women's services. But the report by Dr Marion Swan, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, which resulted in the medication being reduced, has been suppressed.

The medication doses were prescribed by a consultant psychiatrist, Peter Gravett, who was the responsible medical officer in charge of Herons and Elms wards. Last December, Dr Gravett was moved to care for male mentally ill patients

A senior social worker, Susan Machin, who helped to raise the alarm about the highly disturbed behaviour of women patients on the two wards, has been suspended and faces a disciplinary hearing next week. Her MP, Colin Pickthall (Labour, West Lancashire) has written to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, saying the charges against her were 'trumped up'. He believes she was suspended partly to prevent her revealing further damaging allegations.

Ms Machin was one of the 'Ashworth Five' whistleblowers who helped to expose a 'cruel and brutalising' regime run by some nursing staff.

A damning inquiry report, by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, published in August 1992, showed patients were routinely beaten, bullied and degraded by staff. Patients were subjected to psychological abuse and sadistic jokes including being terrorised by nurses brandishing a pig's head. As a result of the inquiry the general manager was moved, seven staff were suspended and the medical director was removed.

Ms Machin has refused to comment on her case or the new allegations because of the terms of her contract. But from other sources the Independent has pieced together a picture of the way the new allegations were handled.

After the dramatic reduction in medication in November 1993 nurses reported that many patients had become 'acutely psychotic'. According to staff they suffered withdrawal symptoms including hearing voices and having hallucinations. Some also had convulsions and fits.

Mr Pickthall believes the hospital has tried to 'cover up' the results of an external inquiry into the treatment of female patients.

Ashworth 'bedlam'. . . .4