‘A&E staff told me my catatonic schizophrenic wife was not a priority’, says ‘broken’ husband

A man who has battled the NHS for decades to obtain mental health support for his wife was told by A&E staff she was not a priority despite being so unwell she was catatonic.

Steve, a 63-year-old from Hertfordshire, has been supporting his wife, who has schizophrenia, for 30 years, and has recalled the “horrific” lack of care she experienced when at her most ill.

Despite her getting into a state of catatonia and becoming a danger to herself, he says he has been told on multiple occasions that his wife was not a priority in A&E and there were no psychiatric beds available.

His story comes as a poll of more than 600 people by the charity Rethink Mental Illness revealed that two-fifths of mental health patients reported being told they weren’t sick enough to access NHS care.

The charity, which supports people who suffer from severe mental illness, also found in its survey that 35 per cent of people had been told their condition was too severe to be helped.

Have you had a similar experience? Email rebecca.thomas@independent.co.uk

Steve is the primary carer for his wife (Steve W)
Steve is the primary carer for his wife (Steve W)

Despite the cost of living crisis, Rethink found that 35 per cent of respondents had turned to the private sector to obtain mental health support.

The Independent has published several stories exposing the scale of the crisis facing mental health services, which has left some patients waiting for more than five days in A&E, and patients waiting years for care in the community.

Speaking with The Independent, Steve said his wife – whose identity he requested we protect – had been sectioned three times in the last decade.

Referring to the second incident, he said: “She was again catatonic. This was after about three or four weeks of her gradual declining health at home. The crisis team would come in daily, but she got worse and worse.

“They had to take her to hospital as she had begun to attempt to self-harm, and arrived at A&E by 8pm. However, by 6am the next day she had still not seen a doctor or had a mental health assessment.

“My wife was catatonic, she had no bodily control ... at half past six, I got back a message from the doctors in the mental health unit saying they cannot come to see you because you are not a priority.

“I realised at that point that the only way my wife would become a priority, because I was looking after her in A&E, would be by leaving her on her own. So I had to walk out, I had to leave her. I cannot describe the pain of that and how difficult that was.”

According to Rethink’s survey, a quarter of people surveyed said there was a lack of follow-up care, while 35 per cent said the support they received was too brief to be effective.

Mark Winstanley, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said: “This survey reveals the real-life consequences of a failure to ensure mental health services have enough resources to meet demand, with people losing their jobs, falling into crisis, coming into contact with the emergency services, and even attempting suicide as they wait too long for treatment.

“Significant funding has been put into the system, along with a clear commitment from NHS leaders to improve access to care. There cannot be a sense of fatalism and shoulder-shrugging at poor access to support and treatment for people experiencing mental illness.”

Steve, who is a patient representative for Rethink, told The Independent he recently had to threaten to divorce his wife just to stop the mental health hospital from discharging her without appropriate support or care in place.

He said: “The only way I was able to get her the help she needed, and to defend myself, was to actively say to the hospital, ‘If you insist on sending her home, I will have to divorce her.’

“It broke me. It’s bad enough watching your wife go through this, and adding to that the pressure that the health service was placing on my shoulders, it reduced me to nothing. It crushed me. It’s left me with absolutely no confidence in the health service to look after me as a carer at all. Through all of this, I feel totally abandoned.”

He added: “There are simply not the resources available to deal with it. The mental health system is stretched to the point that it can only deal with the most recent crisis.

“So in fact, it doesn’t matter how ill you are. It doesn’t matter how delusional you are. The last five or six times that my wife has been admitted to hospital and asked for mental health assessments, I’ve been confronted with the phrase ‘There is not a single bed available in Hertfordshire.’”