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Mental health crisis phone line deemed 'shocking'

Healthwatch West Berkshire call for change after NHS-run service ruled ineffective

Fiona Tomas

Fiona Tomas


01635 886639

Mental health crisis phone line deemed 'shocking'

AN NHS-run mental health crisis helpline for people in West Berkshire has admitted its own service is “shocking”.

The NHS Mental Health Crisis Helpline, commissioned by Berkshire West Clinic Commissioning Group (CCG), was ruled to be ineffective following a routine inspection by the body’s senior nurse director in November last year.

The findings were published in the minutes of a meeting between representatives of the CCG’s governing body last month.

The visit was an “interesting and valuable” one, but acknowledged that the crisis line did not even have a sufficient answerphone service.

It also highlighted a real gap in commissioning, which “no-one in Berkshire Healthcare Foundation Trust had flagged up”.

But one mental health professional at a charity in Newbury said the ineffective line had been a known problem for some time.

Mental health coordinator at Eight Bells For Mental Health Kathryn Dundas added that the service is continually letting people down.

Mrs Dundas said: “I have to call the crisis line a number of times on behalf of some of our members.

“There have been times when I’ve been left really frustrated – and I don’t have mental health issues.

“When someone is really distressed and contemplating suicide and has to go through this ordeal, it’s alarming in the least.

“People have been flagging this up for a long time.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing someone in an acute state of distress, which is just added to because the system isn’t fit for purpose.”

The damning findings have emerged a year after Healthwatch West Berkshire (HWWB) held a collective thinking forum to explore how mental health services can be better delivered in the region.

The Thinking Together forum – which was attended by health professionals including those from Berkshire West CCG – explored the meaning of ‘crisis’.

Following the forum, a report highlighted how concerned service users were for the wellbeing of the staff at the crisis service, suggesting that they suffered high levels of burn-out, which in turn led to clients having to deal with a regular change in staff.

Now the independent consumer champion for health and social care in West Berkshire is calling for radical and immediate action to improve the front line service.

Chief officer of HWWB Andrew Sharp said: “We and local voluntary groups have been highlighting and campaigning about the shortcomings in this service via events, reports and lobbying. 

“As seen in our The Thinking Together For Crisis Review report of last year, this was an issue the Clinical Commissioning Group was made aware of.

“It is disappointing that following an announced quality visit to the service by Berkshire West CCG in November 2018, which resulted in an acknowledgement of a lack of appropriate crisis line, seemingly little has been done.”

The mental health crisis line is one of a number of services that provides emergency care for patients across West Berkshire. 

The line is currently manned by one dedicated member of staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Berkshire West CCG said that if the line is busy, the call is automatically diverted to another member of the team who can provide support.

If all other clinicians are on other calls, there is a voicemail facility and messages are picked up as soon as a clinician becomes free.

A spokesperson for Berkshire West CCG confirmed a review of the service is currently under way and another visit is being conducted.

The statement read: “The quality visit highlighted good practice in a number of areas along with some areas of concern and a review is currently under way to identify where things need to improve to ensure all mental health crisis services are meeting the needs of those who require them.

“As part of this, we are looking at what improvements can be made to the delivery of the crisis line service.”

Mrs Dundas originally joined Eight Bells when it was set up as a drop-in centre to offer support for those experiencing mental health problems.

She says her role has “changed beyond recognition” since starting at the charity, adding she now directly refers clients to mental health services because the wait time after being referred through a GP is too long.

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