Clinical negligence in the mental health sector

In The Sweeney – the infamous 70s TV police drama – Regan and Carter, Flying Squad officers of dubious morality – justify their behaviour with compelling platitudes – once a villain, always a villain!  Who needs evidence?   They know villains are “guilty as sin”. 

The mental health sector can seem depressingly similar, even now, even in 21st century Britain.  

People with a history of mental illness are lost souls.   How could there be negligence?  How could a person who is mentally ill be mistreated?  Could negligence really make any difference?     

Yes.  Yes.  And again, yes! 

However under resourced, however inadequately trained, however poorly managed, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, care co-ordinators, healthcare assistants, crisis team members, anyone who is responsible for the care of a person suffering from mental health illness, has a duty to provide care to a reasonable standard. 

Failure to provide care to a reasonable standard is a breach of duty – negligence – even when a person is already significantly mentally ill.  

To illustrate the point, it may be easier to see an example.  

Case history, death of Patient M – mental illness and substance abuse  

This tragic story involved a man with profound long-term mental health illness.  As we all know, often those who endure serious mental illness, end up marginalised by society, living in poor quality accommodation.   

Because his mental state worsened he ended up under section detained in a mental health unit.  He lost the accommodation.  He was found a new place to live but it was emergency short term accommodation.    It was inadequate in ways those responsible for the care of his mental health could and should have known.  

Patient M had a long history of alcohol and substance abuse.  He admitted openly to those who were responsible for his care, that if he had money – what he called “pay day” – he would buy alcohol and/or drugs.   

He was subject to a specific to a Community Mental Health Treatment order which included having to attend for treatment for alcohol and substance abuse, as well as having to attend appointments with psychiatrists, care-coordinators, and others responsible for the care of his mental health.  The issue of illness, lapsing from agreed treatment plans, associated with alcohol and substance abuse, was written all over his case history. 

Despite this, Patient M was discharged from the mental health unit to the inadequate emergency accommodation with no support, even though it had been agreed he needed that support. The accommodation was in the centre of the town.   He was taken to the accommodation by staff from the mental health unit who gave him cash (intended to pay for electricity/gas).  They then left him alone.

Within 12 hours Patient M had bought enough cocaine to accidently overdose.    

At his inquest the Coroner said: “Having been identified as a Binge Addict, and being left alone in the centre of L town centre with money, it was predictable that he might immediately use the money to purchase illicit drugs and it must be concluded that this is exactly what he did do”.  

Negligence about as clear as negligence can be.  

Even though Patient M was a person whose life was blighted by serious chronic mental illness, his death resulted from the negligence of those responsible for his care.  Whatever his medical history, whatever his mental health history, whatever his troubles with alcohol and drugs, it was the acts and omissions of those tasked with his care, that, having failed to discharge their duty, caused his entirely preventable death.

Patient M is an extreme example of clinical negligence in the mental health sector.  But all too often failure in this sector goes unchallenged, and even unnoticed.  Patients suffer worsening of their mental health, and may even suffer physical injury, or death (as in the case of Patient M), when proper care is not provided.  

If we can help you to investigate a possible case relating to your mental health treatment, email or call – 

jholtom@lspartnership.co.uk

john@freemanharris.co.uk

Or all the Dunstable office 01582 417208

Or call Talha in the London office 0207 790 7311

John Holtom, Consultant Solicitor, specialist in Clinical Negligence and Serious Personal Injury claims for 30 years. 

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