This post refers to ‘The Mental Health Act Assessment Process and Risk Factors for Compulsory Admission to Psychiatric Hospital : A Mixed Methods Study‘ – Wickersham, A, Nairi, S, Jones R and Lloyd-Evans, B. Published in British Journal of Social Work in April 2019.
This paper presents a mixed method study using data from mental health act assessments followed by interviews with AMHPs (approved mental health professionals), s12 doctors and some AMHP managers in a focus group.
A Mental Health Act Assessment is a formal process in England and Wales, which relates to the provisions of the 1983 (as amended 2007) Mental Health Act. It is the process by which a person can be compulsorily detained in a hospital which is registered to provide care and treatment. An application for detention is made by an AMHP (who is a social worker, nurse, occupational therapist or clinical psychologist who has received additional specialist training and is approved by the relevant local authority) and it requires the recommendation of two doctors, at least one of whom should be independent (the other can be the treating psychiatrist or can be a GP) and who has preferably received additional training under section 12 of the Mental Health Act.
This process is commonly known a ‘sectioning’ a person.
The study is described as ‘mixed methods’ because it integrates elements of quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. The researchers took a range of data from AMHP reports following Mental Health Act Assessments and the information held on electronic databases within the trust to analyse some characteristics and outcomes of people who were assessed under the Mental Health Act within a specific time period. 150 records were analysed, including retrospective case record audits of which 146 were included. The researchers noted that there were fewer, and less complete records for assessments which had not resulted in detention which meant they covered a longer period in order to ensure some were included.
Only assessments which took place in the community were included and anyone who was recalled on a CTO was excluded.
Some of the characteristics identified or used to differentiate included what, if any, diagnosis the person assessed had, whether the reason for assessment was due to concerns about risk of harm to self and/or others and whether a ‘lack of capacity or insight’ was noted (I’ll come back to this).
Then the researchers undertook semi-structured interviews with 4 AMHPs, 4 section 12 doctors and ran a focus group with 3 AMHP service managers. These were subject to thematic and content analysis.
My first thought was that it was a small group of interviews and that it might reflect a lack of balance in the importance of each conversation but the number of AMHPs within one trust is small so as a representative sample of 53 AMHPs employed it was a fair percentage.
The paper refers to the outcome of the study being discussed with the AMHP leads and involving ‘a research colleague who has lived experience of using services and working as a peer support worker in the participating trust’ but that just begged a few more questions in my view.
This study took place in one London trust. It is described as an ‘inner London trust covering two local authorities’ which, for anyone who knows London mental health, narrows it down to one trust. I had to try to stop myself being distracted by this because I was an AMHP in one of those boroughs, in that trust, so kept thinking of people I used to work with, but that’s not the best perspective from which to start reading a paper in a neutral manner. However, it does emphasise the truism that we don’t read papers in isolation of our own experiences and knowledge of situations. So while, in one sense, I am trying to move away from that and read the paper as if I had no idea where it was and who might be being interviewed, I am also able to acknowledge the role that self, and background knowledge always plays when we read papers and research.
The aim of the study was to focus on potential increases in the level of detentions and to look at any barriers to alternatives to admission or what might or might not influence decisions to detain someone under compulsion which is an extreme action regarding the deprivation of liberty of another person in the context of state infringement of the human rights of another person.
Key learning points
Some of the themes identified will be familiar to those who have worked in this field for any length of time. One related to the potential difficulties caused by not having three professionals assess at the same time. A doctor may make a recommendation and this can be followed up by an assessment with a doctor and an AMHP attended at the same time. One of the issues identified was that the first recommending doctor may be influenced to recommend detention, as the paper states
‘ one doctor suggested that, as the first to do an assessment, it can feel safe to recommend detention and pass responsibility to the second doctor’p12
This was followed by the further discussion that the AMHP and second doctor may be influenced by the first recommendation.
Issues were raised as well about the individual different in attitudes, experience, knowledge and confidence with understanding risk thresholds which can be key to the outcome. Personality and unconscious bias may play a role in the outcomes of assessments.
One of the key themes to emerge, unsurprisingly, was that the impact that lack of alternative options to admission, made on the decisions to detain. If there were no places in crisis houses, capacity in crisis resolution teams, day services that met the needs of the person who required support, family and informal support in place, it could have a significant impact on the outcome and decisions made. Lack of access to substance misuse services may also have an impact on some decisions.
It may also be about the assessing team not knowing what the alternatives are for that person. One of the key pieces of learning the researchers emphasise is the potential difference in outcome when someone has a member of their community team present, or a family member or someone who knows the individual. This can help to identify both options and the lack of suitable options.
There were some issues raised around poor operational processes including the role of inpatient services. This included poor discharge planning which led to hasty readmission and poor continuity of care between community and inpatient teams. There were some additional factors which might be more relevant in the type of area it is, around access to support for people who are non-UK residents. This is an area which may include some people who are visiting the area.
Reflections and gaps
The paper identifies some of the difficulties in identifying data in the assessments considered for inclusion and reflects that out of the 150 assessments analysed, 22% had missing or incomplete AMHP reports.
The identification of ‘lack of capacity or insight’ as one of the categories in which the assessments were sorted, indicates to me a lax approach to the term and use of ‘capacity’. I never want to see the term ‘lack of capacity’ in any document that doesn’t refer to what the lack of capacity is for. I accept this is my pedantry, but is if it ‘lack of capacity to consent to an admission to hospital for assessment or treatment’ it wouldn’t take many more words to say so and these phrases add to the general misconception around capacity and/or insight, that it can be applied broadly, or maybe it’s me not understanding the implicit suggestion that this is specifically capacity to consent to admission.
The sample size is local to one trust so the findings can’t necessarily be used to evidence situations in other geographical areas. The interview sample sizes are small which can attribute far more importance to one or two, what might otherwise be, throw-away lines. That doesn’t mean that the importance of what is said isn’t valuable. It is, but it needs to be recognised in the context of the sample of assessments and the sample of interviews.
The involvement of management staff was key to understanding some of the context in which the study happened and the management team reviewed the data which was prepared for inclusion but that does offer a consideration about any self-imposed restraints that those interviewed might have felt in terms of criticism of the organisation, given that the sample size was so small. However, saying that, there was a fair bit of criticism for the organisation coming through but it may have been a factor.
The study only looked at community assessments because the focus was on avoiding hospital admissions. This meant that the voices of those who are detained in hospital and views of inpatient teams are lost. It is possible, especially with longer admissions, that some inpatient staff may have built up a different perspective about blockages and this aspect was intentionally lost. That is due to the limitations of the study rather than a lack of thought in the process.
This is research which is about the outcomes of Mental Health Act Assessments and the process of completing them. The study was focussed on professional views and records. There was a researcher who was there to review, who had lived experienced and the purpose of this research was to present a professional perspective but I wonder if there are more gaps around involving people who have experienced detention, in the processes of research and using social work research as empowerment. I know there are other studies which have and are doing this so it does feel like an unfair criticism but I felt it would be remiss to ignore it totally.
Use in practice
So what does the paper tell us that we can use in practice? The key headline and of course, this may be increasingly difficult in the face of cuts in services, is the importance of having someone who knows the person being assessed, present as part of the assessment, whether that is the care coordinator, or a family member or person who works with them through a third sector organisation.
It is also preferable to have the assessing team carry out the assessment at the same time. Often this is not lacking because there is an intention to make the process more challenging but due to availability of staff who are more frequently pressed by competing needs. It is useful to point to a study which evidences this as a factor.
The other aspect is to keep pushing for better options around prevention. This isn’t something that everyone can change but we can keep advocating and shouting for improved services which lead to better outcomes . I don’t know how much difference this makes when it is a factor that is far bigger than the individual practitioner, team or even organisation but it always needs to be referred to and having the evidence to do so is helpful.
This was a very useful paper to me in a lot of ways. It helped to show the way that mixed methods can be used effectively and how they can form a cohesive approach to understanding a problem. The outcomes and concerns raised were ones I recognised and I suspect will be recognised by those of us working in this space. Did I learn new things? Possibly not, but I found I have evidence to back up some of the assumptions made and that is key to pushing changes and improvements. If organisations can be presented with evidence linking the lack of capacity in the service, to involve people who know the person being assessed in the assessments and show that this leads to more admissions and therefore more cost, it may be a trigger to change systems.
And even if it isn’t, it allows us to talk about about what we see with more authority.