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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 18:00 GMT
'I was close to suicide on the ward'
By Jane Hughes
Health correspondent, BBC News

Sophie
The time I spent there was far worse than the original illness
"Sophie"

Some of the most vulnerable patients in the NHS are suffering violence and threats on a regular basis, according to figures obtained for the BBC.

The National Patient Safety Agency says there were more than 10,000 incidents of violence involving mental health patients in England and Wales last year.

In the year to September 2007 322 patients suffered serious or permanent harm, and one patient died.

The revelation comes on the eve of a new report from the Healthcare Commission which is expected to say there is "constant and intolerable" violence on mental health wards.

The new statistics make Sophie's* heart sink.

She spent a year in a mental health unit after suffering a mental breakdown, and spent the whole time in fear of physical and sexual violence.

She was punched in the face, had boiling water thrown over her, had a man climbing into bed with her and groping her, and she was frequently kicked and hit by other patients.

"It brought me very close to suicide on several occasions," she said.

"The time I spent there was far worse than the original illness.

"I only started to recover when I came out of hospital. It was an atmosphere of humiliation, not an atmosphere of healing - it did me more harm than good."

Mental health charities say Sophie's experience is far from unusual.

Getting worse

They say the situation is getting worse because the move to treat more people in the community means that it is only the most acute and distressed cases which are treated on wards.

Wards are dirty, depressing and dangerous - this is no way to help people in recovery from mental health problems
Paul Farmer
Mind

Mental illness can make people violent and paranoid, which is why some attacks happen.

And mixed sex wards, which are still relatively common, make things worse.

"These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society," said the Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind.

"Wards are dirty, depressing and dangerous. This is no way to help people in recovery from mental health problems."

Staff at Meadowfield hospital in Worthing, Sussex, believe it does not need to be like that.

Their unit is designed to minimise the boredom, frustration and sense of oppression that many mental health patients experience.

It is bright and airy, with individual bedrooms and bathrooms for patients, a gym, art activities and therapy groups to keep patients occupied, gardens to sit in, and staff trained in the risks of violence and the way to diffuse tense situations.

So how much difference does it make?

"I think it makes a huge difference," said Theresa Dorey, nurse consultant.

"They are being admitted to a calm, therapeutic environment, so that people can think, 'OK, I've got some sanctuary, I can think about some recovery now'."

The government pledged extra funding to resolve the situation in 2006, so how does the National Director for Mental Health, Louis Appleby, respond to the fact that it's still a problem?

He believes the situation is improving, but that some services have struggled to get the balance right.

"I don't for a minute pretend we've got there yet, with wards the tranquil, therapeutic places they need to be in every part of the county, but I do think we're heading in the right direction," he said.

But none of that is any consolation for Sophie, who still shudders at the recollection of her experience on a mental health ward.

"I'm angry," she told me, "angry that five years on, there are people still having to go through what I went through."

*Sophie's name has been changed

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