Mental health staffing problems linked to ward suicides

Research on suicides of patients under observation raises concerns about dependence on inexperienced and agency staff

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Picture: Rex Features/Phaney

Suicidal patients under observation could be put at risk by staffing issues on psychiatric wards, a study has found.

Researchers at the University of Manchester analysed factors involved in the suicides of patients under observation over a seven year period. Half of the suicides occurred when checks on patients were carried out by inexperienced staff, such as healthcare assistants, or agency workers unfamiliar with patients. Deaths also occurred when wards were understaffed or staff were overrun during busy periods, the study found.

The research was carried out as part of the university’s National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide.

Professor Louis Appleby, director of the inquiry, said that the current observation approach was “not working safely enough”.

“This is an important part of keeping patients safe, but we found that where deaths occurred, responsibility had often been given to less experienced members of staff. Deaths also occurred when the protocols were not followed. Observation is a skilled task, not an add-on that can be delegated to anyone available,” he said.

Nursing staff numbers at NHS mental health trusts in England dropped 6 per cent between 2011-12 and 2013-14, according to research published last year by the Health Service Journal.

Dr Peter Carter, head of the Royal College of Nursing, said that the research highlighted “one of the many serious consequences of a depleted workforce”.

“To deliver high standards of mental health care, the NHS needs not only sufficient numbers of nurses, but also a workforce with the right balance of skills, who are fully prepared to meet the complex needs of mental health patients,” he said.

“Resources are critically needed to invest in further research and training, and to provide the levels of staff required deliver this crucial, life-saving care.”

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