Hundreds of mental health patients are still being sent long distances from where they live despite government pledges to end what experts called a “shameful practice”.
New NHS data shows there were 745 patients who were sent out of their local area in July this year because of a chronic shortage of NHS beds.
One patient, Simon Rose from Derbyshire, described his experience as “a nightmare” after being sent more than a two-hour drive away from his wife and newborn daughter, when he was in hospital for longer than three months.
The government and NHS England have pledged to end the inappropriate transfer of patients away from their local areas by 2021, but the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) said progress had stalled.
An analysis by the college estimated patients travelled the equivalent of 22 times around the world in just one year.
The college used NHS data on 8,640 inappropriate out-of-area placements between August 2018 and July 2019 to reveal patients were forced to travel 555,000 miles.
Out-of-area placements can have a devastating impact on patients and their loved ones, can set back recovery and be challenging for staff, the college said.
They are deemed inappropriate when a patient is sent away because no bed is available for them locally, and this category represents the vast majority of all out-of-area placements. Allowances are made when a patient requires highly specialist care.
Mr Rose, 49, was treated out of area when he was severely depressed and feeling suicidal and there was no mental health bed available near his Derbyshire home.
He was sent to an NHS-funded bed at a private hospital in Harrogate, 80 miles away.
His wife, Janine, had just given birth to their daughter Louisa, who was only two months old when he became ill. He was in hospital for 14 weeks.
The father of four, who now works as a lived experience educator for Derbyshire mental health trust, said: “It was a nightmare being so far away from my wife and new baby and it definitely set back my recovery.
“The strain on my family was horrendous. My wife was trying to cope with having a newborn baby at a time when I was not just severely ill, but physically absent. They wanted to visit me regularly in hospital, but it was a two-hour drive, so that was impossible to do often.”
On 31 July this year there were 745 people who were being treated inappropriately out-of-area, according to official figures.
Wendy Burn, president of the RCPsych, said sending patients far away from their support systems was a “shameful practice”, and that cuts to the number of beds had gone “too far”.
She said: “Trusts struggling with dangerously high levels of bed occupancy are being forced to send seriously ill people hundreds of miles away from their homes for care. That must stop.
“Beds are being closed to move resources to the community so that people can be treated close to friends and family and without having to leave their homes.
“The RCPsych agrees with that principle. But the reality in many areas is that beds have been lost and investment in community services is only now starting.
“As a result, precisely the opposite effect has been achieved with some severely ill patients sent hundreds of miles for care.”
Since 1987-88 the number of mental health beds in England has fallen by 73 per cent from about 67,100 to 18,400.
A report commissioned by the college estimates that a further 1,060 beds are needed to reduce occupancy levels to acceptable numbers.
But even if extra beds were made available, substantial or immediate improvements in occupancy rates are unlikely given existing pressures, the research said.
The report, Exploring Mental Health Inpatient Capacity, identified 13 areas that are particularly struggling.
The areas with high levels of inappropriate out-of-area placements are: Bristol; North Somerset and South Gloucestershire; Devon; Lincolnshire; Norfolk and Waveney; Nottinghamshire; Lancashire and South Cumbria; and Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Added to this, the areas where mental health bed occupancy rates regularly exceed 95 per cent are: Devon; Birmingham and Solihull; Cornwall, Mid and South Essex; North Central London; South East London; and Sussex and East Surrey.
Additional reporting by PA
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