Leading judge slams mental health provision for teenagers

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A top family law judge has described the “disgraceful and utterly shaming lack of proper provision in this country” for teenagers with mental health needs.

Sir James Munby, the High Court’s most senior family law judge, previously said he felt “ashamed and embarrassed” that a place in a low security mental health service could not be found for a 17-year-old girl anywhere in England or Wales.

The girl, who is known only as X and is currently in care and living in a secure youth offenders’ unit, desperately needed proper mental health support from medical specialists, according to medical reports heard by the court. She has attempted suicide on multiple occasions and has to be watched by staff at all times.

Following the judge’s criticism, a place in a low-security mental health ward has now been found for her, after months of delay.

Had space not been found for her, in a few days’ time her detention period would have expired and she would have been free to leave the unit and head back into the community.

Her guardian has said that, if this were to happen, “staff do not think it will take more than 24 to 48 hours before they receive a phone call stating that X [the girl] has made a successful attempt on her life”.

Deprivation of liberty

It’s possible to detain a person with mental health needs on the basis that they could be a danger to themselves or the public, known as deprivation of liberty.

However, if there were no suitable place for X to be kept, it would have been extremely difficult to detain her.

The judge had emphasised in his previous decisions the importance of finding a suitable place for the girl before she was due to leave the secure unit. Showing his frustration at the lack of progress, he commented “I might as well have been talking to myself in the middle of the Sahara”.

There are, according to the judgment, only six mental health units in the country where the girl could be placed. Each has a waiting list of several months.

The judge placed the blame for the delay squarely on a lack of resources for mental health support.

He asked “If this is the best we can do… what right do we, what right do the system, our society and indeed the State itself, have to call ourselves civilised?”

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