Thousands of NHS mental health patients are being sent to private facilities because there are no free beds available, an investigation has found.
Some of these already-vulnerable people face journeys of more than 100 miles from home to receive crucial treatment.
The health service spent a staggering £186million last year on sending these patients to private rehab facilities which, experts warn, are a ‘breeding ground for abuse’.
Senior nurses say mental health patients are ‘treated like second-class citizens’ as their local doctors ‘warehouse’ them elsewhere to get help.
One extreme case was sent to a private facility in Glasgow, despite living 170 miles (274km) away in Northamptonshire.
Sandwell and West Birmingham’s NHS was not alone in spending its entire mental health budget on private care over the last three years, dropping a total of £20.6million.
Numerous local NHS boards spent most of their mental health funding on sending patients to private facilities in 2017-18, with those in Sandwell and West Birmingham, South Worcestershire, Walsall, East Lancashire, and Blackburn with Darwen spent all their money on private care
The British Medical Association found that more than 2,000 mentally ill patients were placed in private clinics last year because no NHS beds were available.
This includes three who were sent to Whorlton Hall, a private hospital in County Durham that was closed in May after staff were caught abusing patients with learning difficulties.
A further 700 were placed in ‘locked rehab’ in private hospitals – where they are not allowed leave their ward, which experts say risks breaching their human rights.
Many of the patients, who have long-term mental health problems, are being placed hundreds of miles away from their families and have little or no contact with NHS doctors.
Dr Andrew Molodynski, the BMA lead for mental health, said: ‘As seen in the cases of Whorlton Hall and Winterbourne, the “cut-off” nature of these institutions can be a breeding ground for the development of harsh and abusive cultures.
‘This has no place in modern mental healthcare.
‘As well as the debilitating impact on the patient, the eye-watering sums being spent on out-of-area private providers is a clear sign that the Government must get a grip on this worrying practice.
‘There are no positives here for patients, families, care services, or the public purse- quite the opposite.’
The BMA’s Doctor magazine analysed the journeys of 2,600 NHS patients who have been sent to private clinics in the past three years.
Of these, 140 faced more than a seven-hour round trip to their homes.
One patient from Northamptonshire was sent to a private hospital in Glasgow, while another from Kent was placed 150 miles (241km) away in Darlington, County Durham.
The report warned that mental health rehabilitation wards have all but disappeared from 18 Clinical Commissioning Groups – local NHS boards, also known as CCGs – and NHS trusts in England.
This has left around five million people entirely reliant out-of-area private services.
Figures show that 57 per cent of the NHS budget for mental health rehabilitation now goes to private firms – up from 54 per cent a year earlier.
Dr Raj Mohan, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, warned that out-of-area care has now become the ‘default’ for many NHS trusts.
He said: ‘There is a huge human and financial cost to sending someone out of area.
WHAT HAPPENED AT WHORLTON HALL?
In May, the Whorlton Hall mental health care facility in County Durham was shut down and 10 of its staff arrested.
A total of 16 staff had been suspended from the NHS-funded centre.
Panorama footage showed staff allegedly abusing patients by appearing to mock, taunt, intimidate and repeatedly restrain them.
One worker at the unit was filmed calling a patient a ‘fat c***’ while another was told her family were ‘f***ing poison’.
Another member of staff referred to the facility as a ‘house of mongs’.
BBC reporter Olivia Davies went undercover as a care worker for two months to investigate claims by whistleblowers of mistreatment and poor care.
She filmed shocking scenes of staff using offensive language to describe patients, with two male staff members singling out a female patient for particular abuse.
Aware she was scared of men, they left her distressed while trying to keep her quiet by claiming her room would be inundated with men – or ‘pressing the man button’.
In just 16 months the mental health care facility had numerous visits – a total of seven from GPs, 78 from CCGs, 51 local authority, 57 independent advocacy, seven CQC, 11 Local Authority Safeguarding Team and 14 police visits.
Durham Police said its investigation included allegations of physical and psychological abuse of patients at Whorlton Hall.
‘Each out of area placement is a vulnerable person sent away from their family, friends, and the places they know, and makes it harder for them to access the services they need when they are ready to live in the community again.
‘The high numbers of people with longer term serious mental illness being sent out of area for treatment shows that we are failing those who need rehabilitation care.’
The private hospitals are being used instead of NHS Mental Health Rehabilitation Services to help people recover from longer-term mental health problems and re-integrate into everyday life.
Patients are referred to them after spending time in hospital but before they are ready to return home.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind, said: ‘Rehabilitation services play a vital role in helping people to return to living more independently in their communities.
‘They help people get out of cycles of repeat A&E visits and acute inpatient admissions – which is better for them and for the health service.
‘The lack of NHS rehabilitation services in some areas is further evidence of the need for significant investment to improve the state of the buildings where people receive care – so that wards provide safe, therapeutic environments for people.’
The Royal College of Nursing’s mental health lead, Catherine Gamble, added: ‘The NHS still hasn’t got to the point where people with mental health problems get the same access to care.
‘They still await the same standards of care as people trying to get treatment for a physical health problem.
‘At present, people with serious mental illness risk being treated as second-class citizens by the health service. We won’t close this gap until action replaces rhetoric.’
The BMA report comes after a BBC Panorama investigation showed patients at Whorlton Hall hospital being mocked, taunted, intimidated and repeatedly restrained.
The footage also included shocking scenes where some staff can be heard using offensive language to describe patients, while another calls the hospital a ‘house of mongs’.
A police investigation has been launched and 16 staff suspended.