Thousands of people are being forced to travel tens or even hundreds of miles to access mental health care on the NHS – because beds are not available locally.
In May alone, there were 575 “inappropriate out-of-area mental health placements” in England.
More than three-fifths of patients (62%) had to travel more than 60 miles from home, according to analysis of the latest NHS Digital data by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
And 50% of placements lasted longer than 31 days – a record high percentage.
Rachel Bannister’s daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder in 2013 and was sent to a series of far-flung hospitals over the next three years – including one in Scotland, hundreds of miles from the family’s home in Nottingham.
She was there for six months, including Christmas.
“She called me and said, ‘Mum, I just want you to come pick me up and take me for a walk to the park or give me a hug,'” Rachel told Sky News.
“She was 300 miles away in Scotland when she said that and it broke me.”
Seeing her daughter go was also painful, with Rachel saying: “The trauma of that first separation when your child is ripped from the heart of your family – you feel like you’ve failed them.”
The government set what it described as a “national ambition” to eliminate inappropriate out-of-area placements by 2020-21.
But that time is long gone and there is little progress.
During the 12 months since the deadline was exceeded, 4,180 new placements outside the area have been registered.
Covid-related pressures, including bed closures for infection control and staff absences, are said to have contributed to the ongoing problems.
Clinicians say it is “heartbreaking” to have to tell patients they have to be sent away.
It is a subject to which the Royal Society of Psychiatrists takes a “zero tolerance” approach.
“These placements are bad for patients, for their relatives and loved ones, and for the exchequer,” said the college’s dean, Subodh Dave.
“What we want is an end to these inappropriate off-site placements, and better funding for mental health services both pre- and post-admission to support crisis teams to support rehabilitation efforts.”
There are some circumstances where out-of-area care is the best choice for a patient.
They may require specialist services that their local hospital cannot provide, or they may choose to be treated in another area to be closer to family.
The Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement: “Everyone should have access to safe, appropriate mental health care and we recognize the impact receiving care far away from loved ones can have.
“That’s why we’re investing an extra £2.3 billion a year to transform NHS mental health services by 2024, meaning more people will be able to receive care as close to home as possible.”
Rachel Bannister is now campaigning for better funded NHS services through her charity – Mental health – Time for Action Foundation.