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Patients with mental illness are crying out for help yet many hospitals aren’t responding and lives are being lost

8 minute read

Medical negligence

There has never been a more crucial time to speak about the lack of comprehensive care patients with mental illness are receiving when they present to hospitals in their darkest hour.

Mental health impacts of COVID-19

Since April 2020, Beyond Blue has reported a 12 per cent increase in traffic to the suicidal thoughts and self-harm section of their website that focuses on COVID-19 support.

A dangerous pattern emerging involves hospitals failing to properly consider the concerns and information shared by loved ones when treating a patient with mental illness. Family members know their sick relatives the best. They are the ones who have witnessed drastic changes in behaviour and potentially heard suicidal threats.

Despite this critical information being shared in a hospital setting, far too many patients with mental illness are slipping through the cracks. They are not being diagnosed correctly, are often sent home without careful consideration or receive poor supervision when at their most volatile. It’s a growing area of medical negligence and it’s resulting in patients with mental illness going on to either commit suicide, attempt suicide and in some cases assault or murder one of the closest people to them. We can and should be doing better for these patients.

The true cost of mental illness misdiagnosis

Tragically, I am currently acting for a family who would not have lost their loved one had their concerns been taken more seriously.

The mother of two, whose mental health had been declining for several months, presented to a public hospital earlier this year for treatment. After much encouragement and support from her family, she finally decided to get help and presented to the hospital’s emergency department. However, to the family’s horror, the mother was declared fit to be sent home by the hospital on the same day.

When the family asked the hospital for an explanation, the treating doctor said that they had administered antipsychotic medication and the mother had now settled. The family member expressed their concerns to the doctor that when the mother took antipsychotic medication at home the hallucinations would return soon after - and often worse than previously - and pleaded with the doctor to keep her overnight for observation. The hospital preceded to send the mother home the same day, despite these pleas.

The mother’s hallucinations returned within hours of returning home and the next day, she took her own life. Her family have been left devastated by this loss and her children are now navigating life without a mother.

The role of family in mental health diagnosis

There is no doubt that resources are tight and that hospitals are under a lot of pressure. However, where a patient has consented to their family’s involvement, mental health professionals must listen to these often life-saving insights, given that they have very little understanding of their patient’s behaviour outside of the hospital. The perspective of the family is being overlooked and in many cases, this has resulted in gross medical negligence as a mentally ill patient has left the hospital and acted on their highly dangerous thought.

Duty of care and mental health

Mental health professionals have a duty of care to provide patients with a reasonable standard of care. They must diagnose the patient appropriately and provide the patient with appropriate treatment and supervision.

To provide reasonable care, it is essential that the mental health professional obtains a psychiatric history from the patient. If the family is involved, their perspective should be listened to and valued as part of this process – as they know the patient the best.

However, this step is often being overlooked by mental health professionals and as a result lives are being lost.

As a medical negligence solicitor, I unfortunately keep seeing cases where a patient has harmed someone else or attempted suicide because they were released from hospital without adequate treatment.

Heartbreakingly, it is all too often that the patients’ families had told the hospital that they did not believe their loved one was ready to be sent home, but the hospital sent them home anyway. Although the family pleaded for their loved one to be kept in hospital their concerns were not taken seriously. If mental health professionals had listened to the families when determining their loved one’s treatment needs many suicides, injuries, and crimes could have been avoided.

In these difficult times, if hospitals don’t focus on person-centred and family-inclusive care, we risk a cascade of tragedies that do not need to occur.

This opinion piece was originally published in Lawyers Weekly ‘Mental health implications from COVID-19 cannot be ignored‘.

Mental health support services

If you or a loved one are struggling to cope or are concerned about mental health issues, know that you are not alone. If you are not in immediate danger, the first step is seeing your doctor to discuss your symptoms. Your doctor will be able to assess whether you require a mental health care plan.

A mental health care plan will entitle you to up to ten individual and ten group appointments with a psychologist, social worker or occupational therapist.

There are also a number of mental health support services available that specialise in providing crisis support, therapy or counselling, these include:

If you feel that you are in immediate danger, we recommend calling 000 or going to hospital - and if possible, taking a family member or someone that you trust to advocate for your care.

Mental health negligence claims

If a facility where a health worker hasn’t provided adequate treatment for you or a loved one, there may be legal avenues available to you. Our expert medical negligence lawyers can advise you on your legal rights and guide you through the claims process. Find out if you have a mental health negligence compensation claim by contacting Shine Lawyers for an obligation-free and confidential discussion regarding your options.

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