Sussex hospitals are turning suicidal people away in their hour of need - because there is no space left to treat them.

Other desperate mental patients are being sent in ambulances to private clinics in other parts of the country, hundreds of miles from their family and friends.

That is the shocking admission from the woman in charge of NHS mental health services in Sussex, who claims her trust is now “facing a real crisis”.

In a frank interview, Lisa Rodrigues, chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, revealed cuts-hit services were stretched to breaking point, arguing: “Something needs to change - and soon.”

Figures released last week showed the trust has closed 104 beds in recent years - the fourth highest number of closures in the UK.

As soaring numbers of patients come forward for emergency treatment, hundreds have been sent to costly clinics like The Priory, often in far-flung corners of the country.

Admitting her trust was now under “huge pressure”, Mrs Rodrigues said: “Last weekend we had no beds at all. Next weekend we'll probably still have no beds.

“Unless we are handed more resources we will soon slip into a crisis. It's tough for staff and it's very tough for patients.”

Last year a man from Brighton hanged himself after Sussex Partnership said it had no room to treat him.

Patrick Whiting took his own life in March 2012 after a community nurse told him there was no space at a unit in St Leonards.

At the inquest, devastated Andrew Whiting, who found his twin brother's body, said: “They said he was not coping very well and it would be beneficial to go back to hospital - but no beds were available.”

The Argus:

Patrick Whiting, pictured in 1993

Already this year, scores of other mentally ill people have been turned away from hospitals and sent home to be treated by a community nurse.

One insider who works at the trust - who did not wish to be named - said refusing mentally ill people a hospital bed was a “complete scandal”.

She said: “When someone is in a serious crisis, there is only really one place they should be - in hospital.

“Many of these people are being sent home when it is not good for them, even if they are still receiving treatment.

“If things carry on like this, it's only a matter of time before the trust has another horror story on its hands.”

Mrs Rodrigues said patients were always offered some form of treatment if needed, claiming a bed was always found for people suffering the most severe symptoms.

She added hospital treatment could be “difficult and disorientating” and said it was often better for patients to be treated at home.

But she conceded: “It's true that we are sometimes forced to tell people to go home when previously we might have admitted them into hospital. That's obviously a real concern.

“However they are always visited by a community nurse, who may stay overnight if required.”

The decision to close the beds was taken back in 2008, before the economic downturn sent mental health referrals in Sussex soaring by 20% in the last year alone.

While some patients are turned away from hospitals and told to go home for treatment, other vulnerable people are sent in ambulances to private clinics as far away as the Midlands.

Last year Sussex Partnership paid for 367 'out-of-area' bed days, while this year the number has already more than doubled to 755.

One leading mental health charity suggested sending patients far away for treatment could damage their chances of recovery.

Amy Whitelock, policy manager at Mind, said: “Having a good support network of friends and family around you can make a big difference to how well and how quickly someone's mental health improves.

“Being sent out of your local area to hospitals far from home where friends and family may struggle to visit you is unacceptable.”

Jean Winter from Peacehaven, whose granddaughter has been in and out of mental health treatment for years, said it would be “awful” if she was forced to seek help far away.

The 82-year-old said: “I couldn't imagine how terrible it would be for someone suffering with mental health issues to be taken hundreds of miles from home.

“They need the support of their family, not be stuck out there on their own.

“It's also so important for their nurses to be there - familiar people they know, not strangers.”

Sending patients to expensive private clinics also comes at a hefty cost to the taxpayer, with each care day costing the NHS more than £600 on average.

In the year 2012/13 Sussex Partnership paid private firms £228,000 to take care of its patients, while this year spiralling costs have already reached nearly half a million pounds.

Mrs Rodrigues admitted the current situation was “unacceptable” and promised health bosses were working together to find a solution.

But she blamed the problems on government cuts, claiming the trust would soon “reach crisis point” if it was not handed more resources.

This year, Sussex Partnership will be forced to find £13.5 million of savings from a budget of £245 million.

She said: “It's true that we started the latest closure programmes some time ago.

“However many beds you have in mental health services, there's always a tendency to use them all. So we did some analysis of our numbers and agreed changes needed to be made.

“What's happened since then is the downturn, which had a terrible effect on our patients. The referral rate is huge and we can't sustain it.

“The public need to understand how tough it is for us right now. Unless we are handed more resources we will soon slip into a crisis.

“I agree that the current situation is not acceptable and we need to look at what we can do.

“But I don't think the answer is necessarily more beds. It's about increasing the availability of our crisis services.

“There is every incentive for us to do everything we possibly can to get on top of this increased demand, and work with our commissioners to develop alternatives to admission.”




Lisa Rodrigues, the woman in charge of NHS mental health services in Sussex, has never been afraid to speak her mind.

Due to retire next year as chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, the former nurse believes there is a “massive stigma” towards mental patients - both from the general public and the government.

She said: “At the moment, NHS England and the government clearly do not consider mental health services to be as important as physical health services - despite what the NHS Constitution says.

“The total amount spent on physical healthcare is going up while the money spent on mental health going down.

“If this doesn't change soon, many health trusts across the country including ours will soon be facing a real crisis.”

The Argus:

Lisa Rodrigues, chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

Mrs Rodrigues suggested this stigma against mental health was shared by the public, and complained there was “virtually no outcry” when cuts to services were announced.

She said: “I do think we have never shouted loud enough about what has gone on here. But to be honest, our patients are not the people that the public tend to go on marches about.

“When bed numbers go down in an acute hospital everyone is up in arms.

“But when we closed our beds, we were very surprised because there was hardly any reaction at all.”


Government's NHS commitment not seen on the front line


During the 2010 election campaign, David Cameron stood at a lectern during the leaders' debate and declared his passionate devotion to the NHS.

He promised to spare the axe and increase NHS spending in real terms so that "we improve it, we expand it, we develop it".

But on the ground, some health workers say the reality is very different.

Peter Atkinson, the UNISON branch secretary of the Sussex Partnership, said the public was being “fed a lie” by the government that the NHS budget was protected from cuts.

He said: “We've had to make year on year savings of about 5 or 6%. The result of that is that the trust regularly has no beds to put people into.

“This is a direct result of government cuts to the NHS. That's the truth of it.”

Care and Support Minister, Norman Lamb, admitted the current levels of access to mental health treatment are 'unacceptable'.

He said: “It is essential that people with mental health conditions get the treatment they need early and in the community - but beds must be available if patients need them.

“That is why we are investing over £450 million into improving access to treatment for people with mental health problems and are working with NHS England to see how long people wait for treatment, with a view to introducing access standards for mental health.

"We are also drawing up clear guidance on what crisis care should be available to people with mental health conditions across the country."

The health regulator, the CQC, has announced that there will be a new Deputy Chief Inspector of Hospitals with expertise in mental health to root out poor care and highlight best practice in the NHS.


Timeline of beds lost


*Work on looking at the future shape of services and mental health beds, with the aim of developing more community services began in 2008 and 2009.

*In the summer of 2010 a public consultation on the future of mental health services was held by the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and the former primary care trusts covering East and West Sussex.

The shake up would lead to the loss of up to 85 beds from the 339 across both counties, excluding Brighton and Hove over the next few years..

Bosses said it would save £2.3m.

*In September 2011, it emerged that mental health beds in Brighton and Hove could be cut by a fifth, with health bosses looking to reduce the number of beds in the city from 95 to 76, saving £1.2m.

*It was later confirmed in January 2012 that 12 beds out of the 95 at Millview Hospital in Nevill Road, Hove, would go by the end of March.

Mental health chiefs in the city said the reduction at the hospital was due to an increased focus on treatment in the community and at home but some councillors and experts said the move was “risky”.

*In Feb 2012 the trust opened the £15m medium secure Hellingly Centre, which provided four 15-bed wards and a range of therapy areas.

*In March 2013 it emerged the trust was to almost double its bed numbers after forming a unique partnership with a private care provider Care UK.

As part of the new deal the organisations will take over the running of a new hospital in Gosport, Hampshire, from private health care firm Orchard Portman at a cost of £8m.

The new agreement also includes the construction of a new 24-bed home in Horsham in a move the trust said was designed to meet a need for more rehabilitation and recovery-based care for people with mental health conditions.

The schemes were expected to increase bed capacity within the trust from 77 recovery and rehabilitation places to 133.

*In May 2013 the trust opened additional beds for patients to cope with unprecedented demand over the bank holiday weekend.