Mental health staff at risk through ambulance delays

Approved mental health professionals are being left waiting up to five hours for an ambulance while detaining potentially aggressive patients, a professional body has said.

The Approved Mental Health Professional Leads Network is calling for greater protection for frontline staff because of concerns that many AMHPs are having to undertake Mental Health Act assessments without proper back-up from the police and ambulance services.

Claire Barcham, national co-ordinator for the professional body, which covers England and Wales, spoke out after Unison described violence against social care staff as a “chronic problem in the UK”.

She said problems occurred when professionals are called out to undertake Mental Health Act assessments in the homes of people whose may need to be detained for their own safety, or the safety of others.

In addition to having a trained professional on hand to deal with a potentially violent situation, police officers are needed to execute a warrant to enter a person’s home, while ambulances are required to convey people to hospital after they have been detained.

However, Barcham said some officers refuse to attend until an ambulance arrives, or in the absence of a warrant, they could fail to show up at all.

“I have heard of situations where police are ‘too busy’ when you call and they say ‘we’ll log this call and you can dial 999 if the situation deteriorates’. AMHPs, police and doctors can be left waiting in the streets for hours for an ambulance, and some assessments have to be abandoned and carried out at a later date.

“Some ambulances can take three, four, five hours to arrive, and once you’ve made the decision to detain the person the doctors will often leave, and you’re left with the person who might be getting more and more agitated.”

Barcham said Camden and Islington Mental Health Trust in London, where she works as the AMHP training and development co-ordinator, had solved the problem by providing a specially staffed patient transport minibus in partnership with the ambulance and police services, while other health trusts commission private ambulance services.

She said better commissioning guidelines for NHS trusts were needed as few ambulance services were complying with the Mental Health Act code of practice.

Last week a mental health charity was fined £30,000 for allowing a support worker to visit a service user with paranoid schizophrenia on her own. Mental Health Matters apologised “unreservedly” to the family of Ashleigh Ewing, who was stabbed to death in Newcastle in May 2006.

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