Mental health crisis services in England are “in crisis” an investigation by the BBC and Community Care magazine has claimed.

Alarmingly, the research found that many psychiatric wards are running at more than 100% capacity, while 1,700 mental health beds have closed in the past 2 years – a 9% reduction in the total number of beds available. This means that mental health professionals can struggle to find emergency hospital care for patients or that they are sent to private hospital sometimes hundreds of miles from home.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Martin Baggaley, medical director of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We are in a real crisis at the moment. I think currently the system is inefficient, unsafe.

“We're certainly feeling it on the frontline, it's very pressured, and we spend a lot of our time struggling to find beds, sending people across the country which is really not what I want to do.”

For the investigation, Freedom of Information requests were sent to 53 of England's 58 mental health trusts and 46 replied. Of these, 28 trusts admitted to having average occupancy levels in acute adult and psychiatric beds running at 100%: the Royal College of Psychiatrists recommends 85% bed occupancy.

Other findings included:

• The NHS continues to spend millions of pounds sending severely ill patients to private hospitals, often hundreds of miles from home
• Children and young people are being admitted to adult psychiatric wards due to nationwide pressures on specialist children’s beds
• Patients admitted to wards are “increasingly seriously ill” placing an extra strain on ward staff.

Disturbing picture

Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said that the investigation “paints a disturbing picture of the appalling state of crisis care services in some parts of the country.

"This investigation paints a disturbing picture of the appalling state of crisis care services in some parts of the country. Mind has long campaigned for improvements to services for people in crisis but these figures truly show the extent to which people with mental health problems are being failed when they are at their most unwell. The consequences of not getting the help you need in crisis can be catastrophic, as serious as an untreated physical health emergency, and yet we see people turned away or not given the help they need far too often.

"Excellent crisis care does exist in parts of England but we need to see it everywhere. The government has said it is committed to giving mental health equal priority with physical health, but until we see services properly funded, adequately staffed and able to cope with the numbers of people in need of help, mental health services will never improve. This is a true test of the new NHS commissioning structures. We need to see national and local commissioners working together to ensure that everyone in crisis gets the help they need."

Paul Jenkins, CEO of fellow charity Rethink Mental Illness, added: “It is an absolute scandal that people facing a mental health crisis are not getting access to services when they need them most. We would never accept this if someone was having a heart attack. A mental health crisis can be just as dangerous but patients are simply being left to fend for themselves and it’s costing lives.

“While, of course, anyone who needs a hospital bed should get access to one, the mental health system should also be focusing on providing better services in the community, to prevent people from reaching crisis point in the first place. Our Schizophrenia Commission found last year that early intervention services are being cut. This makes no sense as short-term savings will end up costing the NHS much more over time, as people are left to deteriorate to the point where they need inpatient care.

“The problem is that while 23% of the burden on the NHS is mental health, just 13% of the budget is spent on it. Until this basic inequality is resolved, people with mental illness will continue to get a raw deal.”

In response, Care Minister Norman Lamb said: “Current levels of access to mental health treatment are unacceptable. There is an institutional bias in the NHS against mental health and I am determined to end this.

“More people are being treated in the right settings for them, including fewer people needing to go into hospitals. It is essential that people get the treatment they need early and in the community but beds must be available if patients need them.”