Drug dealers 'targeting hospitals'

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Drug dealers are targeting psychiatric homes where the misuse of illicit drugs by patients is a "growing problem", according to a mental health watchdog.

The chief executive of the Mental Health Act Commission, William Bingley, said that while visitors appeared to be the main source of supply it was clear drug dealers were going into some hospitals to sell.

At the launch of its sixth biennial report, he added: "There is no common guidance or assistance given to staff about what to do. There is a desperate need for clear policies."

In a recent survey by the Royal College of Nursing, 70 per cent of respondents from both urban and rural areas who worked in in-patient psychiatric services said the misuse of illicit drugs was a problem in their unit. Only half the units had a policy in relation to this.

Cannabis presents the major problem, although the report adds "hard drugs are encountered less frequently but may be more deleterious to mental well-being than cannabis".

Viscountess Runciman, chairman of the commission warned that mixing cannabis with prescribed psychotropic medicines could have "a wide variety of extremely unwelcome effects" on mental health.

The problems associated with the consumption of illicit drugs have been highlighted from a staff perspective in a recent paper based on findings at Ashworth Hospital, a high-security hospital.

Staff concluded that illicit drugs caused a "general deterioration of mental health or exacerbation of existing problems ... with increased conflict between staff and patients and amongst patients themselves".

The commission also warned that there had been "no significant improvement" on the question of bed shortages in acute psychiatric services, and women patients were being treated as a "disadvantaged minority". Many women complained of lack of privacy and harassment by other patients.

Bed shortages were no longer found only in London and urban areas, but all over the country and it was accompanied by a "marked increase in disturbed behaviour" among patients.

The pressure on beds was putting great strain on both resources and staff, the commissioners said, and difficulties in delivering acute psychiatric care in many areas had led to "low standards of safety, care and treatment" for some patients.

At the same time, the number of admissions under the Mental Health Act had increased dramatically - by 31 per cent in the period from 1987 to 1993. As a result, patients were being discharged early or shunted between hospitals.