‘Something has to change’ - Southwold mental health activist Sarah Barrett speaks out after she was hospitalised 206 miles away from home

PUBLISHED: 19:28 06 October 2016 | UPDATED: 19:28 06 October 2016

Sarah Barrett and her mother Cath Pickles  PHOTO: Nick Butcher

Sarah Barrett and her mother Cath Pickles PHOTO: Nick Butcher


A teenage mental health patient sent to hospital 206 miles away from home while recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a violent assault has said: “We must campaign for local hospitals.”

Lack of beds means patients have been sent out of area

Figures obtained by the EDP earlier this year through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT), which provides mental health treatment in the region, sent 160 patients out of the two counties for treatment in 2015/16 because there were no beds available.

Sarah it has taken her years to get over the separation anxiety she suffered while in Southampton in 2014 – “something I had never suffered with before”. She added: “I was already extremely homesick and I couldn’t just pick up the phone and call my mum to come and see me – she couldn’t afford to drive 206 miles.

“There was no funding for her – she was stuck in an awful situation where there was nothing she could do but listen to me scream and cry down the phone that I wanted to come home.

“I wasn’t able to focus on my recovery for weeks.”

Her mother Cath Pickles said: “It was costing about £300 every time I went to see here and I very quickly went through the money I had. It’s just immoral.”

Sarah Barrett was 16 and studying for her GCSEs when, at her own request, she was admitted to a mental health unit following several suicide attempts. But with a shortage of beds closer to home, the closest available hospital was in Southampton – 206 miles from her home near Southwold.

That, she said, made her recovery even harder in what was already a horribly difficult situation.

Her mother, Cath Pickles, eventually removed her from the hospital amid concerns over Sarah’s separation anxiety.

“Being hospitalised is a pretty traumatic thing in general,” said Sarah, now 18. “You’re sent away from home for days, weeks, months and basically locked away. It was terrifying and all I wanted was for my mum to not let go of my hand. I didn’t know at that point that I would only be able to see her every two weeks.”

Alison Armstrong, director of operations (Suffolk) at Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust – which runs mental health services in the area – said it could not comment on individual cases.

However, she added: “We fully understand the distress out of area placements can cause service users and their families particularly at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. We aim to have no patients being treated out of area and we are working with commissioning colleagues to develop innovative solutions for services we are currently not commissioned to deliver.

“If this is not possible as all of our beds are full, we will always seek a bed within area with other providers or in a neighbouring county, such as Cambridgeshire or Essex, before looking further afield.

“When a patient does go out of area, we do everything we can to return them close to home as soon as possible.”

Sarah said: “Something has to change. We must recognise that sending people who are ill miles from their families and friends makes it much, much harder for them to recover and also causes additional problems. We must campaign for local hospitals because I wouldn’t wish what happened to me to happen to anyone else.”

Mrs Armstrong pointed out that a 12-bed Dragonfly Unit created at Carlton Court in Lowestoft opened on September 21, replacing the out-of-date Airey Close unit in Lothingland.

“The investment in the Dragonfly Unit will make a huge difference to young people and their families in Norfolk and Suffolk with complex mental health needs,” Mrs Armstrong said.

“It will also mean that more people than ever will be able to access the specialist help and support they need closer to home.”

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