Mental health tsar Louis Appleby has called for the creation of national standards for low-secure mental health units after figures showed 44 patients escaped from settings last year.
Appleby, who made the comment in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, was also responding to the case of Darren Harkin. He was detained indefinitely yesterday after admitting raping a 14-year-old girl following his escape from the low-secure Hayes hospital, near Bristol.
Figures obtained by Today show 116 patients escaped last year from low and medium-secure psychiatric settings, or while being escorted, in England and Wales, 44 of whom had been placed in low-secure environments. The programme said there were just five escapes by prisoners in 2007.
Appleby, national director for mental health at the Department of Health, said the low-secure system had “evolved” within the health service. He added: “What we have to do now is define low-secure, set national standards for this and ensure that all services comply with that.”
Regarding the Harkin case, he said the inquiry into his escape from the National Autistic Society-run Hayes hospital was likely to report this month and added that it would have to answer “serious questions”. He said he would be asking the Ministry of Justice’s mental health unit, which handles secure placements, not to place people at Hayes.
However, Appleby stressed that low-secure units were not for dangerous people, but for those with long-term illnesses, such as schizophrenia, who were not able to cope with living in the community.
He added: “The public need to have a mature debate about the need for a balance between security and care. Sometimes the debate is not very mature – it’s about prejudice against mentally-ill people.”
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