Cambridge academic backs calls for statutory probe into mental health patient deaths

A Cambridge University professor is lending his support to parents who are campaigning for a statutory public inquiry examining around 2,000 mental health patient deaths.

Leading autism researcher Professor Sir Simon Baron-Cohen (pictured), the cousin of Ali G and Borat comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, was approached by two bereaved parents, Melanie Leahy and Julia Hopper.

Ms Leahy and Ms Hopper are campaigning for the Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry to be put on a statutory footing, compelling staff to give evidence.

Dr Geraldine Strathdee, chairwoman of the Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry, is gathering evidence about mental health inpatient deaths in the county over a 21-year period.

An initial figure of 1,500 deaths was based on information from Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT) and announced in March 2022.

All of the 1,500 people died while they were a patient on a mental health ward in Essex, or within three months of being discharged, between 2000 and 2020.

It was confirmed in January that the number of deaths under investigation is now closer to 2,000.

Dr Strathdee also described the number of responses to the inquiry from current and former staff as “hugely disappointing”.

Just 11 members of staff out of 14,000 contacted by the inquiry said they would attend an evidence session, a parliamentary debate earlier this year was told.

Sir Simon was contacted by Ms Leahy, whose son Matthew died while he was a patient at a mental health facility, and by Ms Hopper, whose son Christopher Nota died after falling from a bridge.

The academic is now supporting their campaign, and will work with affected families on research designed to help prevent suicides.

Sir Simon is director of the Autism Centre of Excellence at Cambridge (ACE), the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, and is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Sir Simon said: “I want to lend my support to these remarkable campaigners and courageous parents.

“Melanie and Julia have shared their concerns that autistic people are disproportionately affected by the impacts of the alleged failings in mental health services.

“We need to conduct research that will provide the scientific evidence that leads to recommendations for suicide prevention in the future.”

Priya Singh, Senior Associate at Hodge Jones & Allen solicitors, representing the families, said: “We welcome Professor Sir (Simon) Baron-Cohen’s support at this critical time for the families.

“They still have so many unanswered questions.

“We know from our legal work that current mental healthcare services in Essex are failing some of the most vulnerable members of our society.

“A statutory public inquiry is the only way we can compel witnesses to attend and ensure the relevant evidence is obtained.

“It is only by understanding what has gone so terribly wrong in these services that we will learn how to put things right and to bring about the changes that are so urgently needed.”

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