Mental health patients have been languishing in hospitals for years due to a chronic shortage of community care, as the number of people confined to wards reaches a record high. The independent can reveal.
Analysis shows that last year 3,213 patients were kept in the ward for more than three months, including 325 children who stayed in the adult ward. Of those, a “very worrying” number are considered well enough to leave but have nowhere to go.
One of these cases was Ben Craig, 34, who says he was left “scarred” after being stranded on a ward for two years – despite being fit to leave – as two councils clashed over who should get his supported housing pay.
He missed the birth of his daughter and did not meet her until she was two months old while she was awaiting discharge, which only worsened his depression.
He told The independent: “I was promised that I would move on, but it seemed like it went on forever.”
The average stay of patients in low-security hospitals was 833 days in 2022-2023. The NHS does not collect data on how long people wait to be discharged, but mental health charity Mind said Craig’s case was far from unique.
Leaked reports, obtained by The independentalso reveal that NHS community services are struggling to see patients, while the NHS spends hundreds of thousands of pounds a year housing those who could be made redundant.
Documents for 2022-2023 obtained and analyzed by The independent to reveal:
- Adult mental health beds cost the NHS between £500 and £1,000 per day, compared to £5,000 per patient per year for community care
- One in five referrals for community care were rejected as the NHS faces a 12 per cent staff vacancy
- Patients waited an average of 13 weeks before seeing a mental health professional, but some waited up to 60 weeks
- The number of 3,213 patients stuck for more than three months was an increase of 639 from the year before and a record high, according to an analysis of NHS data
- In August, 10 percent of patients waited 221 days before starting community treatment
- One in ten patients on a community mental health team have not seen a healthcare worker for a year
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said The independent Mental health patients stuck in hospitals experienced “personal distress” and fell ill again while they waited.
She called on the government to put mental health care on “equal footing” with physical care. If she did not, she suggested that the government was content not to treat all patients equally.
A senior NHS source said long stays in mental health units had become ‘normalised’ and patients were becoming institutionalised.
“These 60s and 90s [days] stayers are only given medication and are drifting away. They adjust the medications to stabilize the person… These people who stay for long periods of time can become completely dependent, they lose contact with the world [and] their life. They are terrible for people,” they said.
Mr Craig was admitted to Prestwich Hospital from prison with psychosis in September 2019 after his mental health deteriorated and he started hearing voices.
In 2020, he was told by doctors that he was well enough to be discharged home at the end of his sentence. However, he was subsequently ‘robbed’ of two years of his life when two councils argued over who should fund the mental health hostel he was discharged into to aid his recovery.
He was ultimately discharged to assisted living in September 2022, where he continues to receive mental health care.
Mr Craig, who now lives in Manchester, told the story The independent: “I was very depressed, I’m still not over it. When I was there, I just didn’t feel like going out or anything, so I stayed in bed the whole time.
“I missed my daughter’s birth and didn’t see her until she was two months old. It left me with scars.”
Even when he was eventually discharged to supported accommodation, he says the community mental health team had “no input” into his care and he still struggled to get in touch with his community service team.
Rheian Davies, head of Mind’s legal unit, said The independent that cases like Mr Craig’s showed councils were failing in their legal duty to fund community mental health services.
She said the charity had seen patients with longer delays to discharge than Mr Craig’s because of this problem.
“It is deeply concerning that people are stuck in hospital and putting their lives on hold due to a lack of supported housing,” she said. “Delays in leaving hospital cause uncertainty and anxiety that can hinder or even reverse recovery.
“This takes a huge emotional toll on the person and their loved ones, but the delay in discharge also means there are fewer beds available for people in a mental health crisis.”
She added that patients “deserve much better than being held in a hospital indefinitely when they are healthy enough to return to the community.” Mrs Davies said: “This case [Mr Craig’s] is a real opportunity to reduce the delays and obstacles caused by a disjointed system.”
Greater Manchester University Hospital said: “We are working hard with all our system partners to ensure that patients who are ready for discharge can do so as quickly as it is safe to do so.”
Abena Oppong-Asare, Labour’s shadow mental health minister, said The independentThe exposé found that the NHS mental health system was “in crisis”.
She added: “The independent Research reveals the terrible reality that patients have to stay in hospital for months, when community care can be much more effective and cheaper for the NHS.”
As part of its election manifesto, Labor has pledged to recruit 8,500 more mental health professionals, paid for through plans to abolish “tax loopholes for private equity fund managers and tax breaks for private schools”.
The Department of Health and Social Care said a further £116 million has been invested in the NHS for mental health discharges in 2021-22 and will have invested £1 billion more in the sector by March 2024.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “There is no doubt that mental health services are under significant pressure, with the NHS treating record numbers of young people and community crisis services seeing a 30 per cent increase in referrals compared to before the pandemic, and the NHS urgent and urgent care are also treating record numbers.”