Around 5,500 mental health patients in England were forced to travel further afield than their immediate NHS region last year because of a lack of hospital beds, new figures indicate.
It was not uncommon for patients to travel as far as 300 miles, while one particular trust was forced to declare a major incident.
And the figures, which were obtained via a Freedom of Information request, were 30% higher than during the last calendar year.
It can occasionally be appropriate to send a patient outside their area if they need highly-specialised care, but experts say that routinely sending people away can increase their risk of suicide.
Yet despite the warnings of healthcare experts, it seems that the problem of mental health patients seeking treatment some distance from their local area is worsening; indicative of the general malaise of the health service.
In 2014-15, 4,804 patients were treated out of area; in 2015-16 that figure had risen to 5,411 – a rise of 12.6%, according to data from 42 of 56 trusts.
Commenting on the issue, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb suggested that the practice of sending mentally ill patients long distances in order to receive treatment should be considered intolerable, and went as far as stating that it should be banned completely.
“If you’re in that setting, separated from your family, it actually prevents you from recovering properly. This would never happen with a stroke patient, or one with a heart problem. It’s a discrimination, at the heart of our NHS, against people with mental ill health.”
Mind chief executive Paul Farmer was also extremely critical of the figures.
Farmer pointed to the statements from the government indicating that they are committed to reducing this procedure, and of the statements from NHS leaders indicating that they would improve the care of people in mental health crisis.
Clearly these statements and intentions have not been followed in actual policy, and Farmer believes that this represents a “truly a sorry state of affairs”.
Farmer outlined her views on the subject, speaking to the BBC.
“It costs more to do things badly, and the human cost is far greater. People with mental health problems deserve better. A mental-health crisis is an emergency just like a physical health emergency, and no-one should be expected to put up with a second rate service for either.”
It was estimated by a healthcare think tank that treating mental health in the UK already costs the country in excess of £70 billion.
With demographic trends indicating that the population will only undergo a greying phenomenon in the coming years, this figure is set to increase.