Mental health ‘neglected in Northern Ireland’

Mental health is the most neglected area in the NHS, Northern Ireland’s most senior coroner has said. John Leckey made his comments during an inquest into the death of Brian Matthew Ferguson, who took his own life two years ago.

“Mental health is the Cinderella service of the health service – instant access is not always possible,” the coroner said.

Mr Ferguson, a 53-year-old father of three from Falcon Drive Newtownards, Co Down, had a history of anxiety and depression but had previously responded well to medication, the hearing was told.

He was found dead on April 14, 2010.

The inquest in Belfast heard how a referral for Mr Ferguson to see doctors at a specialist unit run by South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust was downgraded from urgent to routine. This meant instead of being seen within seven to 10 days he would not be assessed for up to nine weeks.

Gillian Best, a mental health nurse for 25 years who has since retired, said she took the decision to regrade the referral after reading detailed information provided in a GP report.

She said: “I felt that based on information given, there was no indication for the gentleman to be seen urgently. That was also based on years that I have been working in mental health.”

Dr Fionnuala Pollock, who made the referral in March 2010, told the coroner that while Mr Ferguson was not in crisis on the day of their consultation, he was in need of urgent help.

Dr Pollock, who was praised for the level of detail provided in her report to the mental health team, said: “He certainly was a gentleman who wanted help. He knew he needed help. My feeling from the consultation was that he knew there was more he needed to gain from the mental health team.”

The court was told that during their 20-minute appointment Mr Ferguson, who left school without qualifications but had become a general manager and shareholder at his haulage firm, revealed he felt like a fraud who was incapable at work. He also spoke of feeling like he was covering his back and claimed his junior staff members were more able than him.

However, Mr Ferguson spoke of pride in his family and described his children, aged 21, 18 and 16, as his protection factor.

Mr Leckey said: “I have a feeling of deja vu because I have held so many inquests into suicides where people say family is a protection, yet so often they do decide to take their own lives.”

The court was told that protocols at South Eastern Health and Social Services Trust were changed after Mr Ferguson’s death. If a referral is to be downgraded a telephone call is made to the patient’s GP.

Outside the court Mr Ferguson’s widow Lynn said she hoped other people in crisis would get the help they needed.

“I am only doing this for them,” she said.

The inquest was adjourned after issues were raised about the content of a report produced by the trust.

A date for a second hearing has not yet been fixed.