National mental health review must address ‘lack of compassion’ towards patients, watchdog says

Review prompted by The Independent's exposé on 'systemic abuse' of children within private mental health hospitals

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Friday 30 June 2023 11:55 BST

The government’s national review of mental health hospitals must urgently address the “lack of sympathy and compassion” towards patients if safety is to improve, the health ombudsman has said.

Rob Berhens said the investigation, prompted by The Independent’s reporting on deaths and abuse of vulnerable patients, must look at three key issues, including a lack of empathy for those with mental health challenges, a lack of resources and poor working conditions for staff.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay announced on Wednesday that a new safety body, the Health Services Safety Investigations Body (HSIB), would look into the care of young people, examine staffing levels and scrutinise the quality of care within mental health units.

The review comes after The Independent exposed “systemic abuse” of children within private mental health hospitals run by the former Huntercombe Group, with more than 50 patients speaking out about treatment spanning a decade.

Mr Berhens said: “I trust [HSIB] to be able to understand what are the key issues, they’re about the lack of sympathy and compassion for people who have mental health challenges, which to me is a human rights issue.

“They’re about the issue of resources available to the mental health sector. And they’re about the working conditions that staff in those organisations have to deal with. Those are three of the biggest issues where there may be more.”

He added: “I know from talking to people in the sector, that the kinds of pressures mental health staff are under are greater than those other staff in the NHS. And we need to think about how to address this because if we don’t, both inside organisations, but also in the community it’s going to collapse.

Mr Berhens previously told The Independent that mental health patients’ human rights were being “violated” due to the crisis in the sector.

Dr Rosie Benneyworth, who will be chief investigator when the new organisation is created in October, told The Independent the reviews will make recommendations on “problems” and take them up with national bodies such as NHS England or the government.

However, she also said the watchdog would raise any concerns identified with individual hospitals, would work with the provider and escalate concerns to NHS regulators.

The final report on the review will take 12 months to complete, however, the organisation will issue safety bulletins as and when serious safety concerns are identified. The new organisation will also have the power to compel hospitals to share evidence on any issues raised, although Dr Benneyworth said she hoped this wouldn’t be needed in most cases.

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Rob Behrens has held the post since 2017 (PA)

The safety body chief said the focus of the review, would be led by patients’ experiences, adding: “I think we need to start by listening to people to hear their views on what are the most pressing, pressing issues before we come to a judgement ourselves on that.

“I think there’s clearly a lot of concerns around inpatient mental health at the moment, which is why we’ve been asked to undertake this investigation. I think we will be looking to understand what are those big national issues that are impacting on inpatient mental health so we can try and address them.”

She said the review will also likely look at staff mental health and well-being within the sector.

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