More than 200 suicides recorded at mental health units over seven years

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By Denis Campbell Health policy editor

Care Quality Commission figures show overall number falling but more women have begun taking their own lives than men

More than 200 patients killed themselves in mental health units over seven years, new figures have revealed, prompting concern about the safety and quality of care.

Data collected by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) shows that 224 people died of self-inflicted injuries between 2010 and 2016 in mental health hospitals in England.

Although the numbers appear to be falling, the fact that among inpatients more women than men have begun taking their own lives – a trend at odds with men’s much higher risk of suicide generally – has led campaigners to label the NHS’s care of women facing mental health issues as “not fit for purpose”.

The 224 deaths involved 134 men and 90 women, according to the figures, which the CQC collected from NHS mental health trusts.

The annual largest number, 41, was recorded in 2010. There were more than 30 suicides each year between 2011 and 2015, except for 2014, when the number was 23. However, 2016 saw the numbers drop significantly to 16.

In 2015, the pattern of deaths changed and, for the first time, more women (20) killed themselves than men (15). The same was seen in 2016 when 10 women died compared with six men.

“It’s good to see the rates of self-inflicted deaths are declining. However, we’re concerned to see increased deaths among women. Regardless of gender, every death is a tragedy and one is one too many,” said Vicki Nash, the head of policy and campaigns at Mind, a mental health charity.

The deaths involved people who had been detained under the Mental HealthAct for compulsory treatment because they were deemed to pose a risk to themselves or others.

Over the seven years covered by the figures, nine young women and girls aged under 20 died in mental health units compared with four young men in the same age group.

“It is appalling that we are seeing so many self-inflicted deaths of women and girls detained under the Mental Health Act”, said Katharine Sacks-Jones, the chief executive of Agenda, which campaigns on the risks in society faced by women and girls and obtained the figures from the CQC. “Many will have been detained precisely because they were at risk to themselves, yet the Mental Health Act is not keeping them safe and is failing to support and protect them.

“NHS care of women with serious psychological or psychiatric problems needs to take much greater account of the fact that many female patients have suffered violence or abuse. The reality is that the conditions under which the Mental Health Act are enforced are not fit for purpose for women and girls”.

The Guardian revealed in March that coroners had found that at least 271 mental health patients in England and Wales had died between 2012 and 2017 after sometimes multiple failings by NHS staff and bodies, including mental health trusts, GP surgeries and ambulance services. Almost one in six involved shortages of staff, beds or treatment a patient needed.

Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, which looks into deaths involving detained people, called for the introduction of mandatory independent investigations into deaths in places of mental health care.

“Our casework bears witness to the escalating rise on the number of highly vulnerable women and girls dying in places where they should be safe,” she said. “Critical to this is the need for greater oversight, accountability and learning. The lack of an independent investigation system for deaths in mental health settings, unlike that for deaths in police or prison custody, undermines this necessary scrutiny.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Inpatient suicides are at an all-time low. However, every suicide is a tragedy, which is why we recently announced a zero suicide ambition for mental health inpatients.”

An independent review of the Mental Health Act ordered by Theresa May, chaired by Prof Sir Simon Wessely, an ex-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, is due to report soon.

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