Mental health hospitals are ‘making children worse’, leading charity warns

Exclusive: Damning report finds young patients exposed to ‘abuse, neglect and unsafe care’

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Friday 19 May 2023 11:23 BST
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Mind has called for a public inquiry into inpatient mental health services
Mind has called for a public inquiry into inpatient mental health services (Getty/iStock)

Mental health hospitals for children are making patients worse, a major charity has found, as more than half of those they treat report negative experiences.

Britain’s child inpatient mental health units are being used as “holding places” for those needing treatment, and are failing to improve the mental health of those with the most severe needs, according to a report from Mind.

The charity says the findings from its latest survey of children in hospitals should “stop the government in its tracks” and has called for a public inquiry into inpatient mental health services.

The report, shared with The Independent, found that almost half of children said their mental health had become worse after they were admitted, while almost 70 per cent said they did not have a positive experience of inpatient care.

Tiwa, a 20-year-old woman from London, told The Independent that her experiences in three inpatient units had left her with more trauma than before she was admitted, adding that she still has nightmares about her time there.

It comes after The Independent uncovered allegations of “systemic abuse” from 50 patients across children’s mental health hospitals run by The Huntercombe Group, which was sold in 2021.

An NHS report into children’s mental health care in 2021 found that children suffer restraint in hospitals at six times the rate of adults. Meanwhile, the latest NHS data on restraint in mental health hospitals shows that at least 200 children are subjected to a form of restraint each month. This can include being held face-down on the floor, and being put in seclusion rooms for days at a time.

‘We are going to die tonight’

Tiwa was admitted to a children’s mental health hospital in London in 2019, when she was 16.

Describing the care she received as a patient in the unit, she said: “There were times when I was restrained multiple times a day. I was injected to calm myself down, and it was just constant really ... you’re a teenager, and then all of a sudden, there’s five big men [trying to restrain you] that you’ve never seen before because they work on the other wards.”

Tiwa is now doing well and studying at university (Mind)

She added: “It was so traumatising. It is still traumatising. I still have nightmares every night, really. [Hospital] didn’t make me better. I went in with trauma, and came out with 10 times the amount of trauma.”

Acute inpatient units in England have staff vacancy rates of more than 20 per cent, NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch told the public accounts committee last month.

Tiwa said short-staffing led to nights in hospital when both her own life and the safety of other patients were put at risk. One night, she recalled, four “terrified” staff members were in “tears” as they attempted to manage 11 distressed patients.

“I watched my friends almost die at several points, and there were times when I thought ‘A bunch of us are going to die tonight.’”

Tiwa said there were staff who saved her life and would go above and beyond to help her, but they were limited by shortages in the mental health system. She said she was moved between units with no warning, and that, despite begging staff not to put her in holds or in a caged ambulance, she was ignored.

‘A failing system’

Mind’s report into the state of inpatient services for children covered the experiences of more than 400 children and young adults, the majority of whom said they had been admitted on several occasions.

The report warned of multiple failings across inpatient units, including a lack of staffing, overuse of restraint and medication, and children being “inappropriately” placed on adult inpatient wards.

Shockingly, children placed “informally” in inpatient units, without being “sectioned”, do not have the same legal right to advocacy as those who are forcibly detained.

Gemma Byrne, head of policy at Mind, told The Independent: “What we’re seeing in inpatient care is completely unacceptable. We’re seeing cases of abuse, neglect, unsafe care. The fact that environments themselves are not therapeutic, and often, the care people are getting isn’t compassionate enough.

“Children described to us a system that’s failing – sometimes putting them in danger, and making their mental health worse ... That should stop the government in its tracks, make them take a second to look and say, ‘That can’t be right. What’s going wrong here? We need to take immediate action.’”

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said that anyone receiving inpatient treatment deserves high-quality care and to be looked after with dignity and respect.

The results of a rapid review commissioned by the DHSC into inpatient mental health services are expected to be published shortly.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour’s shadow cabinet minister for mental health, said: “Patients continue to be failed as a direct result of a mental health crisis of the government’s own making. Young people are increasingly unable to access appropriate mental health treatment, and the government is failing to ensure the care they need for recovery.”

She continued: “Inpatient services across England must be reviewed – with patient voices at the centre. We need prevention, and reform of mental health services to ensure the best possible treatment for all.”

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