An 18-year-old woman suffering a mental health crisis was forced to wait eight-and-a-half days in A&E before getting a bed in a psychiatric hospital – believed to be the longest such wait seen in the NHS.
Louise (not her real name) had to be looked after by the police and security guards and sleep in a chair and on a mattress of the floor in the A&E at St Helier hospital in Sutton, south London, because no bed was available in a mental health facility.
She became increasingly “dejected, despairing and desperate” as her ordeal continued and, her mental health worsening while she waited, self-harmed by banging her head off a wall. She absconded twice because she did not know when she would finally start inpatient treatment.
The woman’s parents, David and Angela, are so distressed by her ordeal that they have written an account of it for the Guardian. In it, they relate how they and their daughter were told that the NHS could not find a bed for her in a mental health facility either locally or anywhere in England.
Louise arrived at St Helier on the evening of Thursday 16 June and did not get a bed in an NHS psychiatric unit until the early hours of Saturday 25 June, more than eight days later. She was diagnosed last year with emotionally unstable personality disorder and ADHD.
The mental health charity Mind said it believed it to be the longest wait in A&E ever endured by someone experiencing a mental health crisis, and described it as “unacceptable, disgraceful and dangerous”. It called for urgent action to tackle the inadequacy of NHS mental health provision and bed numbers.
“An eight-and-a-half day wait in A&E for a mental health bed is both unacceptable and disgraceful. Mind has never heard of a patient in crisis waiting this long to receive the care they need, and serious questions need to be raised as to how anyone – let alone an 18-year-old – was left to suffer for so long without the care she needs,” said Rheian Davies, the head of Mind’s legal unit.
“This is dangerous for staff, who are not trained to give the acute care the patient needs, and dangerous for the patient, who needs that care immediately – not over a week later.
“This needs to be a red warning light for every single person involved in the decision making that led to this appalling situation, from leaders at the trust to the secretary of state himself. A situation like this is indicative of the dire straits our mental health crisis care services are in,” Davies said.
Chris Grayling, the family’s MP, told them in a letter when they sought his help that “what you are experiencing is what has been in my view a mistaken move away from the provision of inpatient beds in mental health services. I have questioned this over the years but it is a longstanding direction of travel among the mental health trusts.”
He added: “Yours is not the first case of its kind I have encountered”.
Surrey and Borders trust apologised to Louise for her ordeal and said “severe pressure on our beds” was to blame.
“We strive to support people who need our care and sincerely apologise when there are occasions where we do not meet the expectations of people who use out services”, said Lorna Payne, its chief operating officer.
“We have been experiencing severe pressure on our beds in recent weeks and when bed pressures occur, our first priority is to ensure that people are safe. We assess each individual’s clinical need.
“Unfortunately that sometimes means people may wait for longer than we would wish and at times this means that we look to our partners in the acute hospital sector to help us.”
A spokesperson for Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust said: “We are sorry the patient was forced to wait with us longer than we would all like for a suitable mental health bed.
“Our staff did everything they could to make her as comfortable as possible in a single, private room while we regularly liaised with Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust to find suitable specialist accommodation, which is not provided at our hospitals.”