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What did we learn from Panorama? Reaction and analysis after spotlight is shone on region’s mental health trust

PUBLISHED: 16:37 07 February 2017 | UPDATED: 17:48 07 February 2017

Hellesdon Hospital, the headquarters of Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.

Hellesdon Hospital, the headquarters of Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.

Archant © 2012

Politicians and the public have been vocal in their reaction to the BBC Panorama programme which focused on the region’s mental health trust - but what new things did we learn?

The graph that shows the number of unexpected deaths (red line) at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust which has risen in the last few years. The number is measured per 100,000 patients. Graph supplied by Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.The graph that shows the number of unexpected deaths (red line) at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust which has risen in the last few years. The number is measured per 100,000 patients. Graph supplied by Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.

Monday’s Panorama reported the number of unexpected deaths at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) rose at the same time as more than 130 inpatient beds were closed during a redesign of services from 2013.

During the programme the BBC’s health correspondent Sophie Hutchinson spoke to families of NSFT patients and interviewed trust chief Michael Scott, who said improvements are being made.

So how much new light was shed on this issue?

What we learned

Panorama’s report demonstrated how the number of unexpected patient deaths at NSFT rose when the trust cut services as part of its “radical redesign”.

The fact that this rise was not merely caused by the trust treating more patients was proven through a graph that showed the number of deaths still rose when measure per 100,000 patients.

Aside from this Panorama did not reveal any other new local headlines, apart from highlighting the stories of two families.

The report did quote new national research by the Health Foundation that claimed mental health spending by the government has fallen by £150m, though this was contested by the Department of Health.

The response

NSFT chief executive Michael Scott expressed disappointment that his trust was the only one presented as an example of the “difficult issues being faced throughout the country in mental health services”.

But campaigners from Norfolk and Suffolk said the programme was a “devastating expose of the failure of mental health services.

They were supported by Norwich South MP Clive Lewis, who said the NSFT board have entered “last-chance saloon”.

He called for several steps that should be taken immediately by NSFT - including: Making the reduction of unexpected deaths an “absolute priority”, reversing the cuts to outreach and specialist homelessness teams, set a target for eliminating out-of-area placements, and “shout about the injustice of inadequate funding from the rooftops at every opportunity”.

Fellow Labour MP Luciana Berger, a former shadow mental health minister, said Panorama’s findings were “shocking and disgusting”.

Responding to her health secretary Jeremy Hunt agreed that “a huge amount needed to be done” to improve mental health provision, but said they were committing money, claiming Britain was becoming a “global” leader in mental health provision.

Simon Wessely, president of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists, said on Twitter: “Better reporting will contribute to rise in unexpected deaths in mental health trusts but funding not getting through.”

Where does all this leave us?

We know that the number of unexpected deaths at NSFT continues to rise.

However it’s important to remember that - just like in a hospital - some patients will die from natural causes or other factors that could not be prevented.

As the graph above shows the number of suicides at NSFT has remained stable during the last few years. A rise here would have been even more worrying.

Also around one in four unexpected deaths are among people who use the trust’s addiction services, which have expanded over the last five years.

These people run a high risk of physical illness as well as accidental overdose.

Some people with mental health issues also die because their physical health issues are not being adressed by other parts of the system.

The key question is how many of these deaths can be attributed to neglect by NSFT - and whether this number is rising or falling.

We also need to know how this number would compare with other mental health trusts in the country. Answers to these two questions are not yet known.

Looking at the bigger picture - there is no doubt that the NSFT is gradually improving its treatment to patients.

This is illustrated by the trust coming out of special measures.

Out-of-area placements are being reduced compared with previous years, and more patients are being treated.

But there are still problems with long waiting times for treatment, big caseloads for staff, and the electronic patient records system - to name just three issues.

Overall there is cause for very cautious optimism - though many question-marks still hang over the trust and its spiralling number of unexpected deaths.

Have you got a mental health story?

Contact our health correspondent by emailing nicholas.carding@archant.co.uk

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