By Sophie Goodchild and Jonathan Thompson
The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Mentally ill patients are being physically assaulted, verbally abused and sexually harassed on hospital psychiatric wards, according to a damning two-year investigation.
A report published this week by the mental health charity Mind exposes the "pitiful" and "woeful" conditions that many vulnerable psychiatric patients are forced to endure.
The charity found that, in some cases, drugs were being bought and sold on wards and staff ignored claims from patients of sexual harassment. In one case, a suicidal patient was left in a room with a broken window and another complained that someone had urinated in their bedroom.
The report will put pressure on the Government to improve the quality of treatment ahead of a reworking of a controversial Mental Health Bill, due to be published on Wednesday. The original draft of the Bill was fiercely opposed by psychiatrists, mental health campaigners and patients who feared it would increase powers to lock up mentally ill people on psychiatric wards. The Independent on Sunday led a campaign against the original Bill.
Ministers are now thought to have watered down proposals to introduce compulsory treatment orders, but campaigners fear that the Bill is still weighted towards criminalising mentally ill people instead of caring for them.
Nearly 40,000 men and women are treated in hospital psychiatric wards every year. More than half the men and women who took part in the Mind survey - more than 400 current or recently treated patients - said their care while in hospital had not helped their recovery. Nearly one-third said it had made their health worse.
Almost a quarter of those surveyed said they were currently or had been placed on mixed-sex wards, despite a pledge by Tony Blair when he was in Opposition in 1996 to end the practice.
Almost a quarter of patients also said they had been physically or verbally threatened while under psychiatric care by staff or other patients. Many complained that wards were dirty with burned and stained carpets, that access to fresh air was limited and that they had long waits - in some cases up to six weeks - for therapy sessions.
Richard Brook, the chief executive of Mind, said the charity had identified some "excellent" examples of good practice but said that far too many other patients were being treated in "unsafe, untherapeutic" surroundings. As part of the charity's new Ward Watch campaign, he is calling on the Government to increase security for patients in hospitals and to address the over-reliance on untrained agency staff.
"The Government needs to face up to the fact that vulnerable people are being let down by the mental health services that they come to rely on, when they need them most," he said.
The Department of Health denied the accusations and said that 99 per cent of NHS trusts were providing single-sex sleeping accommodation for patients with policies to protect patients' privacy.
"We do appreciate Mind's concerns and are meeting them on Monday to discuss how we can further improve patients' safety, privacy and dignity," said a spokesman.
The mental health charity Sane, which runs a helpline for people suffering from mental illness, said its own research supported accounts of traumatic experiences on mental health wards. These included drug dealing, threats and sexual abuse as well as overcrowding, squalor, boredom and bleakness.
"Sane has its own evidence of the appalling state of acute wards, and we have been campaigning about this for years," said Marjorie Wallace, head of Sane.
"Far from being places of healing and safe, secure asylum, psychiatric wards have become places where many people fear to go."
What we are demanding
The Independent on Sunday is campaigning for better treatment for mentally ill people. We want significant changes to existing services. …