Mentally unwell teenager admitted to adult psychiatric ward after two days in cell

In February, NHS England said it was ‘totally unacceptable’ to admit children to adult wards in most cases

Picture credit: Photofusion/Rex

A 16-year-old who spent two days in a police cell due to no children’s mental health beds being available was eventually admitted to an adult psychiatric ward, it has emerged.

On Saturday NHS England issued a statement saying a bed had been found for the girl after intense media interest was sparked by a senior officer at Devon and Cornwall police voicing his frustration at the young person being left in police custody due to no bed being available. The NHS England statement did not mention the fact that the bed eventually found was on an adult ward but this has been confirmed by BBC News.

Social workers told Community Care that an admission to an adult ward was preferable to police custody but a children’s bed, which are commissioned centrally by NHS England, should have been available. A review by the commons health committee, published in October, found that NHS England had ‘presided over a system which has resulted in children being sent hundreds of miles to access care’ due to bed shortages and had not prioritised problems with capacity.

In February, NHS England said that it was “totally unacceptable” to admit under-18s on to adult psychiatric units in most cases. The agency was responding to the results of a Community Care investigation that found 350 children, some as young as 12-years-old, had been admitted to adult wards in the first nine months of 2013-14. This was an increase of 36% on the 257 children admitted to adult units in the 12 months of 2012-13.

Faye Wilson, chair of the British Association of Social Workers’ mental health forum said: “The Mental Health Act and the Code of Practice allows you to admit a young person to an adult ward in exceptional circumstances. While it’s far better that this has happened than the girl being left in a police cell, a children’s bed should have been available and NHS England’s own report clearly says that they haven’t commissioned enough beds. This has been flagged for years and years. It’s young people and their families that are paying the price across the country.”

The Mental Health Act 2007 puts a duty on the NHS to provide “age appropriate” care to patients under 18. The government’s flagship mental health crisis care policy states that this means: “not an adult ward, unless [the patient’s] needs made it absolutely necessary”. Our investigation in February found that a shortage of beds, not patient need or professional judgement, was the driving factor behind many admissions.

NHS England has been repeatedly warned about a shortage of children’s mental health beds over the past year. In August of last year, a Devon MP alerted health secretary Jeremy Hunt to problems accessing children’s beds in the county.

An NHS England review in July found that the number of NHS-funded children’s mental health beds rose from 1,128 in 2006 to 1,264 in January 2014. But the report found it was “impossible to conclude definitively whether the current level of bed provision is sufficient to meet the need.”

In response to the review findings, NHS England said up to 50 more beds would be opened as a matter of urgency. Community Care has asked NHS England if those beds have been opened.

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