The hidden deaths in psychiatric hospitals…

When I was in a psych hospital at 18 I became good friends with another woman, Lynne. She had self-harmed, attempted suicide and was estranged from her family. Something I could relate to. We were two of the youngest day patients in this hospital. Unlike Lynne, I hadn’t been sectioned. I suppose we bonded due to our similar experiences. Still can remember her with her curly shoulder length hair, baggy clothes to hide the inescapable fact that she had an eating distress and her vulnerability. We confided in each other. One day I finally realised that the meds were doing me more harm than good. I had reached this conclusion while queuing up for the evening ritual of taking your specific chemical cosh of a dosage before you were allowed to leave for the day. Once I had been given mine I escaped to the toilet and dumped the mind altering drugs down the loo. In a conspiratorial way, I whispered my deed to Lynne and imploring her to do the same. We would be liberated from the damned effects of these chemical coshes, the constant zombie like experience, a twilight existence never knowing whether you are awake or sleep, trapped in your own mind made of cotton wool and physically incapable of basic movements. Lynne wouldn’t, she was scared and believed we would get into trouble. I had gone beyond caring and wanted to be rid of the impact of these meds, so I never looked back. Ironically, around a month later, the shrink and the nurse Ratchet stereotype marvelled at my improvement in both mind and improved energy levels. I smiled but said nothing. My approach was working. Around that time I had enough of the place and walked out. Never to return. I wanted to shut out the experience and that meant cutting Lynne out of my life, something which I have regretted to this day. It pains me to recall it and how I feel I had let her down. Worse still, I saw her sitting on the steps outside the hospital months later, I glimpsed her in the distance and quickly scurried away. I couldn’t face her, couldn’t face what Lynne represented and that place,  still feel like a coward to this day.

Year later, I used to see a heartless and unenlightened Community Psych Nurse (my cynicism of CPNs, psych nurses, shrinks, and social workers along with inherent dislike still continues today) who told me in a very cold manner that Lynne had died. She defended the hospital and pretty much seemed unconcerned with the death of a 19-year-old, adding, “Life’s a bitch, Louise, and then you die”! I was so distraught along with feeling ashamed at leaving her.

Again, some years later I found out the truth of what happened to Lynne. She had suffered in so much physical pain, telling nurses yet the shrink told them to “ignore her pleas” as “people with mental health problems imagine they are in pain”. This continued eventually she collapsed. She died on the operating table. The pain was REAL.

There was an inquest, mainly paper shuffling, no real investigation and the facts about her death covered up. Her family didn’t give a damn and went with the hospital (they never visited her same with my family). I believe that they saw Lynne as an embarrassment. Nothing was mentioned about neglect and ignoring the pleas from Lynne about the pain she was in. Other users from the hospital turned up as many liked and were extremely fond of her but they were ignored. They were outraged. It was a cover-up yet they couldn’t put their side of the story. The hospital staff were believed (Lynne, had apparently, not told them about the pain she was in and the first they knew of it was when she collapsed….). No mentioning of negligence and the lack of duty of care or scrutiny of the hospital.

Reason I remembered Lynne was because of this:

Five mentally ill people are dying in hospital every week on average amid claims that failures are being covered-up and lessons not being learnt.

At least 261 sectioned hospital patients in England are known to have died in 2011, compared to 189 deaths in prison and 31 in police custody in England and Wales, The Independent can reveal.

There was an inquest into Lynne’s death but it never got to the real facts in how she died.

Historically mental health deaths were excluded from this level of scrutiny. But a landmark ruling in 2008 from the House of Lords declared hospitals have a duty to reasonably protect detained psychiatric patients from taking their own lives. The case involved the death of sectioned patient Carole Savage, aged 49, in July 2004, who committed suicide by jumping in front of a train after leaving hospital unnoticed.

Lynne didn’t commit suicide she died from neglect but the hospital was never scrutinised nor investigated. People who really knew Lynne and knew the physical pain  she was in weren’t allowed (for some reason) to testify at the inquest which contradicted the hospital’s account.

I met a couple whose son committed suicide in a hospital. He had threatened to kill himself if he was sectioned (his parents believed him and didn’t want him sectioned) but he was. The hospital reassured the parents he would be put on suicide observation. Within days he had hanged himself. I can see the image of his mum and dad. Their expressions showed anger, desperation, and loss along with “Why”… Why did their son die? They discovered bureaucracy and walls of silence, pages were missing from their son’s medical files. They eventually got themselves a solicitor to investigate. Again, there have been cases of desperate people with desperate lives and believe the only solution is suicide.

I always hoped things had changed (these experiences were during the late 1980s and mid-late 1990s) but not so. Cover-ups, lack of investigation and scrutiny still happens.

The 2008 Lords ruling meant: investigations into unexpected deaths or when failures of care were suspected should comply with Article 2. The Government has since insisted that inquests can expand to fulfil this function, if the coroner deems it necessary.

But

Four years later there is growing unease about the reality on the ground. Many families still face huge obstacles trying to find out the truth from internal investigations, according to The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAPDC).

Furthermore

Deborah Coles Co-Director of campaign group Inquest said: “The defensive and closed nature of the investigation process has resulted in a culture of secrecy and complacency over the shocking number of psychiatric deaths. They are not subject to robust public scrutiny and proper systems of accountability which could identify systemic failings that safeguard lives in the future.”

24 years on from Lynne’s death cultures of secrecy, accountability and lack of scrutiny still exists. No justice whatsoever. When it comes to psychiatry and sectioning…. rights and visibility disappear. You become nothing, you are accused of making things up and if you are feeling suicidal… well, you are accused of being an attention seeker and not taken seriously. Compassion, understanding and insight is still woefully lacking in the psych system. A system based on a reductionist medical model that medicalises individuals.

Rights? What rights!

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8 thoughts on “The hidden deaths in psychiatric hospitals…

  1. A terribly sad story and horribly unjust. A much milder version goes on in GP surgeries and doctors’ offices up and down the country, where physical symptoms are called into question if you have a mental illness – or even if you just look visibly upset or worried. I must have heard the word ‘psychosomatic’ a hundred times before someone investigated me properly and found physical conditions. Strange how many doctors believe that mental and physical ill health cannot coexist in the same person.

  2. Deaths in (or from) psychiatric ‘care’ are never investigated thoroughly. The barriers that familues face in gaining the truth about how their relative died, serves only to hide and cover up how their loved ones died. Independent investigations must be the norm. Serious Untoward Incident investigations are nothing but internal whitewashing. Coroners need to carry out a thorough inquiries too. Those detained vulnerable adults deserve at the very least, a full and through investigation into their deaths.

  3. Thank you for this blog. Have recently got success in getting the Australian media to define high security psychiatric forensic ‘hospitals’ for what they are. The deaths in high security, usually stabbings, do get reported, but had previously been reported as ‘Psychiatric hospital deaths’. I’ve found this revs up the public hatred of anyone with a diagnosis as a dangerous person.
    The reporting of these stabbings are usually a follow up, this time, to psychiatrists nearly murdering a man with drugs due to ‘mistaken identity’. Essentially it seemed like a way to take the heat of psychiatrists by following with their need for funds to stop murder the next day. I wonder if the initial report would’ve got seen by the public if the person who had been nearly murderered by psychiatric ‘medicines’ had been classified ‘mentally ill’.

  4. was hard to read this my son was 22 I took him to the mental health services as I knew there was something seriously wrong with him I was out my mind with worry . I took him first to our own gp then to hospital then to mental health services . as he was a young man of 22 there first perception was that it was drug induced I knew this was not the case as my son was very fit an heath conscious he was admitted to a secure unit under section for upto 28 days 5 days later he escaped threw windows that were already told to be changed as a previous patient escaped 7 months earlier an had killed himself , my son was found 4 hours later he had hung himself . these hospitals need to help prevent these persons from harming themselves

  5. I am so very sorry Susan, that must have been terrible and so traumatic. I am so so sorry. Many of these places take no responsibility nor are they accountable. These deaths are hidden. Solidarity, Susan.

  6. It is a terrible mistake to assume that because someone is in mental distress that you can ignore their physical pain.
    Years ago a friend told me of her sadness on finding a neighbour, an old man, in tears because, he told her, he had been falsely accused of abusing his daughter. She had tried to comfort him.
    A few years went by before I saw her again as all my time and energy was used on other things, but when I was able to, and went for a walk in the countryside, she told me of her guilt on finding out that her own daughter had been abused by this same neighbour. She was finding it difficult to talk at all and I gave her some advise on how articulate her thoughts when the words would not come, and she found this helpful.
    She went to her G.P., first for psychological help on her feelings of failing her daughter, but then asking him to investigate whether her difficulties in speaking might have physical causes. He refused to send her for tests until she first – well I don’t remember, but essentially he refused to investigate her symptoms until she faced up to her mental problems.
    It turned out she was suffering from palsy – the nerves sending signals from her brain were degenerating. British Telecom helped her by installing clever machines in her flat, but she died too soon afterwards.

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