(This account has been edited to correct some minor inaccuracies. 08.10.15.)
Even though every formal assessment under the Mental Health Act is different, the actual procedure tends to follow a typical pattern.
Assessments have a similar structure, or series of steps, which have a logical sequence, and need to be followed if the assessment is to meet legal and professional standards. I will illustrate this with a real assessment: Robina, a woman in her early 80’s living alone, with steadily worsening dementia.
• The Referral
The referral came from the GP in the early afternoon. He spoke to the Social Services customer services, and they took down the basic details and then passed it to me for action as the duty AMHP. The GP had visited that morning with Robina’s social worker and the manager of a care home to try to arrange for an urgent admission to the home. However, she had been angry and aggressive, and had refused to consider this. They therefore decided to refer her for a formal MHA assessment.
• Gathering Information
I needed more information. I needed to know more about her personal circumstances. I needed to know what had led to this. Did she really need a formal assessment? Were there alternatives? I had several possible sources: the GP, Robina’s social worker, and any case notes that might be available through the Social Services computer system.
I rang the GP surgery, but the GP had finished his surgery and had gone home. He wasn’t available. This also unfortunately meant that he would not be available to provide a medical recommendation, if that turned out to be necessary.
I tracked down the mobile number of the social worker and rang her. However, her phone was sent to voicemail. I left a message for her to contact me urgently.
As it happened, there had been a request for a MHA assessment a week previously. I had a look at the assessment report. Robina had been known to services for several months. She was a widow who lived alone, and had home care, as well as considerable support from her daughter who lived a few miles away. Robina’s dementia had worsened considerably in the last few weeks. She had started to wander. Although she lived in a village a few miles outside the main city, she had been found in a garden centre several miles from home. She had become reluctant to accept the home care. The AMHP had assessed her with a psychiatrist, but had concluded that as Robina clearly lacked mental capacity, the powers to act in a person’s best interests under the Mental Capacity Act should be used, as she needed residential care rather than a hospital admission.
While I was reading this report, Robina’s social worker returned my call. She was able to fill me in on events since the previous assessment. The social worker had managed to find a bed in a care home and had organised an emergency admission. In the meantime, during the last week, things had got even worse. The police had had to rescue her from a large roundabout in the middle of a major interchange, and on another occasion had located her late at night walking down the central reservation of a dual carriageway 4 miles from her home. Her daughter was so concerned for her safety that she had spent the last couple of nights with her. Unfortunately, Robina was so hostile this morning that the care home were not prepared to offer her a bed, even if she could have been persuaded to go.
It was certainly looking as if all alternatives had been tried. There was no option but to arrange for an assessment.
• Organising the Assessment
The next step was to arrange to attend with two doctors. Robina’s own GP was not available. Since it is highly desirable to have at least one doctor who knows the patient (the AMHP has to explain on the section papers why they could not find a doctor who knew the patient if this is the case), I rang the surgery to see if they had another GP who had had contact with her and knew her. Unfortunately, there was only one GP now in the surgery, with a waiting room full of patients needing to be seen. And in any case, they had never seen her. I tried to contact Robina’s own consultant but he was on holiday.
This meant that I was going to have to get two Sec.12 approved doctors. These are doctors who may or may not be psychiatrists but who have particular knowledge of mental disorder and are therefore “approved” under Sec.12 of the Mental Health Act to act in this capacity. This is not always easy. AMHP’s have a list of Sec.12 doctors. They also have a list of Sec.12 doctors who are prepared and willing to come out to an assessment at the drop of a hat. This list is not so long, although there are always a number of doctors who are very keen to oblige and undertake these assessments, as they receive a fee in the region of £180 for each assessment they undertake.
My initial plan was to locate at least one Sec.12 doctor who specialised in old age psychiatry. I rang around other old age psychiatrists on my list; none of them were available. It took me over 30 minutes to obtain two doctors willing to come out; neither could attend before 1700 hrs.
I rang Robina’s daughter, who was with her mother in her mother’s home, introduced myself, explained what was going to happen, and outlined the legal process, including identifying her as Robina’s nearest relative (this is an important legal requirement, as nearest relatives have certain rights and powers under the Mental Health Act). I also asked her to tell me more about her mother. Her daughter was clearly very distressed by her mother’s deterioration. Robina’s outburst and hostility to the social worker, GP and care home manager that morning had clearly taken her by surprise and had shocked and upset her. Her mother was normally a very polite lady.
All of this was further useful information which I needed in order to conduct a proper assessment.
• The Interview
I met with the doctors outside Robina’s house. I knew both of them. We often met in these circumstances.
We knocked on the door, and Robina’s daughter answered and welcomed us in. She seemed pleased to see us, but was obviously distressed by what was happening. Her husband was also there.
Robina was sitting in a conservatory at the back of the house. She showed no surprise or curiosity at our presence in her house, and at first was civil and polite. Her daughter sat in on the assessment. Robina had earlier taken some medication, but showed no signs of sedation. It very quickly became clear that her dementia was very advanced. She was unable to say what year, month or season it was, and seemed unclear whether her husband was deceased or not. She denied having had to be brought back by the police, said she did not have any home care and did not need it, and said that there was nothing wrong with her. She had only the vaguest memory of the visit she had had that morning, but when we broached the idea of going into a care home or being admitted to hospital, she became very hostile and refused to cooperate with the rest of the assessment, ordering us out of the conservatory.
• The Decision
The two doctors and I went into the kitchen (this is often the place for these discussions – unless we have been thrown out of the house, in which case it will be around the wheelie bin or in my car, if wet). The decision this time was comparatively easy – there were patently serious risk issues, which appeared to be escalating. Her daughter was at the end of her tether, and was now afraid to let her out of her sight. It was not currently an option to explore residential care, and Robina was even denying the need to have home care. There had been significant changes in her mental state in recent weeks, and it therefore appeared reasonable to consider an admission for further assessment, as that assessment could not take place in her own home.
The two doctors completed a joint medical recommendation for admission under Sec.2 for assessment. Their role in the process having been discharged, they then left.
• Completing the application
My job, however, was still very far from over. I could not legally detain Robina until I had established that there was a hospital willing to take her. I could not complete my application without the address of a hospital.
I needed a hospital bed. I rang the bed manager of the local psychogeriatric hospital. He informed me there were no beds. However, it was his task to find a bed, so he went off to do so.
In the meantime, I needed to manage the situation. I kept a low profile with Robina, but talked to her daughter about what was happening.
The bed manager rang me back. He had at last found a bed for Robina. It was in a unit on the other side of the county, 50 miles away. But at least I had the address of the hospital. I completed my application, and from that moment the legal framework for detention under Sec.2 was complete.
• Arranging for an admission
I needed to inform Robina of the decision and of her rights. Even though I knew she would be unlikely to understand this, I still needed to do it. I went back into the conservatory. She did not recognise me, even though I had only been out of her sight for a few minutes. I explained to her that she was going to have to go to hospital, and offered her two options: she could go with me in the company of her daughter and son-in-law, or she could go in an ambulance. She listened to me, then chose option three: to stay at home, thank you very much. I tried to explain to her that this option was not available, but as there was nothing wrong with her, she did not need to go to hospital, and would therefore stay at home.
I realised that I was going to need an ambulance and called Ambulance Control. They gave me an expected time of arrival: up to two hours from now. This is by no means unusual. Sometimes I have had to wait for up to 6 hours for an ambulance.
From time to time, I approached Robina to try to persuade her to go to hospital. She wasn’t having any of it and told me so in an extremely terse way. This distressed her daughter, and I had to spend time with her, trying to reassure her.
In view of her consistent antagonism, I decided that it was fairly likely that I would need police assistance to get her into the ambulance. I rang Police control and explained the situation and my need for assistance.
• The Admission
I was still on the phone to the police when the ambulance arrived, somewhat earlier than anticipated. The police officer asked me to keep the line open so that he could monitor what was going on and organise attendance if necessary.
I explained the situation to the ambulance crew, and followed behind as they entered Robina’s house.
It’s amazing what a uniform can achieve. Robina started to flirt with one of the paramedics, and within a few minutes walked out of the house arm in arm with him, a broad smile on her face, and entered the ambulance without fuss. Robina’s daughter accompanied her. I stood the police down.
The ambulance departed, with Robina and her daughter on board. The detention papers, as well as an authorisation by me for the ambulance crew to transport her (all legal requirements) went with the ambulance.
Since the duties of the AMHP are not discharged until the patient is formally accepted by the admitting hospital, and also because Robina’s daughter would need a lift back home, I followed the ambulance in my car, with Robina’s son-in-law.
Often this trip is a chance for the AMHP to relax a bit – it’s actually an incredibly stressful process being responsible for the safety and wellbeing of not only the patient but also the relatives – but this time, with a stressed and anxious relative on board, it was necessary to answer his questions, to explain exactly what was happening and also what was likely to happen in the future and reassure him that everything was for the best.
We finally arrived at the hospital. Nurses took Robina and her relatives into a side room and gave them a cup of tea while I went into the nursing office to organise the formal acceptance of the paperwork by the hospital. I was offered a cup of coffee – the first refreshment since I had set off for Robina’s house nearly five hours ago. Unfortunately there was no-one on duty who was able to receive the paperwork, and I couldn’t leave until this had been officially completed. An authorised person had to come from another unit a couple of miles down the road.
While I waited for this, I set to work writing my AMHP assessment report – another requirement is that a formal report should be left on the ward before departure. I had already started to write this earlier, and had it stored on a memory stick, so this did not take too long to complete.
• The Aftermath
At last the papers had been formally checked and accepted. It was time to take Robina’s relatives back to Robina’s house 50 miles away.
Extricating them was tricky. Robina was quite happy to be sitting with them drinking tea, but when she realised they were leaving and not planning to take her with them, she understandably objected. Although the nursing staff were experienced at handling this situation, it was still extremely distressing for Robina’s daughter, who started to cry once we were in my car. I spent the journey back attempting to reassure her that the decision was correct, that there was the prospect of improving or stabilising Robina’s condition, and that the likely outcome would be that she would be transferred to a care home in the near future.
We finally get back to Robina’s house and I drop her daughter and son-in-law off. That is officially the end of the assessment.
I get home. At last, after over 9 hours, I can actually relax, and maybe even get something to eat. And then I’ll have to be back at work by 0900 hrs tomorrow.