Rob Behrens, the health service ombudsman for England, said urgent action was needed over repeated “tragedies” in NHS mental health services.
His warning comes as the latest NHS figures show there were 9,839 incidents of abuse against mental health patients from April 2021 to March this year – a higher figure than in any other sector.
It follows an investigation by The Independent last month that revealed allegations of systemic abuse of children within a group of private mental health hospitals run by a provider called The Huntercombe Group.
Mr Behrens said research carried out by his office showed that vulnerable people being detained in hospitals are “losing their human rights when they were put in difficult situations where they had no control”.
They include a woman who was not allowed to see her baby while she was detained on a mental health ward, and another woman who was denied period products.
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Mr Behrens told The Independent: “We can’t go on with leaders in the NHS and politicians saying ‘This cannot go on’, because it happens time and time again. It’s the amount of resource and commitment that is put into dealing with issues, which ultimately is going to turn this around.
“I meet good, frustrated leaders in the health service who are looking for a political leader, and sometimes don’t get it. All of us need to raise our game as far as this is concerned, because it’s very serious, and I’m not excluding my own organisation from that.”
When asked if mental health is a particular area of concern, Mr Behrens said: “Yes. It’s about human rights. It’s about vulnerable people exposing themselves to the arm of the state in a way where they have very little control, and where there needs to be accountability and scrutiny. That’s exactly where an ombudsman should be looking, to make sure that people without power are not being traduced by the system.”
Over the weekend, several health leaders challenged the government over the worsening mismatch of demand and capacity across the mental health sector, after data uncovered by The Independent found that each month thousands of mental health patients are waiting for longer than 12 hours in A&E.
Mr Behrens said: “The government is preoccupied [and] has a lot of things to do. But this issue is not going to go away. Mental health needs are increasing ... [this] leads to tragedies, and there’s no sign of those decreasing. I think it is a very urgent issue.
“There is a ritual wringing of hands by people in key positions, saying ‘This must never happen again.’ But it does happen again, time after time, because the culture is so defensive and there are not enough people strong enough to stand up and say ‘This has got to stop.’”
Ministers are currently debating what action to take following The Independent’s exposé and reports by the BBC’s Panorama programme and Channel 4’s Dispatches that document abuse taking place within NHS-run mental health hospitals. The issues highlighted include body cameras being worn by staff – a protocol that has been criticised by experts.
Mr Behrens told The Independent that problems in recruitment, training and staff numbers must be addressed, as staff who are “continually” under pressure may face a “temptation to cut corners, and not treat people with the dignity that they deserve”.
National data on patient safety incidents shows that 9,839 incidents of abuse against patients, by staff or a third party, were reported between April 2021 and March 2022. This is compared to 8,238 within general hospitals, 115 in ambulances, 387 across learning disability services, and 1,827 within community hospital services.
It is possible that the higher number of incidents reported could reflect a better reporting system within mental health services.
The ombudsman is calling for his office to have the power to pre-emptively investigate trusts or systems where it believes there is an issue. Currently, the ombudsman can only intervene after a complaint has been made.
Mr Behrens added that if his office had had this power, it would have been able to launch an investigation into mental health services in Essex a year before the current independent review, which is looking at 1,500 patient deaths, began.
He has also argued that ministers have a “conservative view” on bringing forward public inquiries, and warned that the legislation is “arcane”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Every patient has the right to be treated with dignity and respect, in a caring and therapeutic environment where their rights are upheld, their needs are met, and they feel supported and listened to.
“It is vitally important we learn from failings to better protect patients and we are considering action to improve care across mental health inpatient services.
“The primary role of the Health Ombudsman is to address patient complaints to ensure they have been dealt with properly, as the Care Quality Commission is responsible for the regulation and inspection of health and social care services.”
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