‘I lost my son on a mental health ward in Essex – I’m still waiting for answers’

A statutory public inquiry is investigating the deaths of up to 2,000 people at mental health units in Essex over a 20-year period, but families have criticised a lack of contact from officials.

The parents of patients who died under the care of NHS mental health services have said they feel locked out of the revamped inquiry into their children’s deaths.

An investigation into the deaths of up to 2,000 people at mental health units in Essex over a 20-year period was upgraded to a statutory public inquiry last year following a decade of campaigning by bereaved relatives. However, two of the lead campaigners have now written to Health Secretary Victoria Atkins over their “considerable concerns” at what they say is a lack of contact from officials as they search for answers into the deaths of their sons. 

In the letter, seen by i, Melanie Leahy and Julia Caro express their disappointment that no meeting with Ms Atkins has taken place and the terms remain unpublished.

The Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry was established in 2021 with a remit to investigate the deaths of people on mental health wards in the county. However, former chairwoman of the inquiry Geraldine Strathdee described the number of responses to the inquiry from current and former staff as “hugely disappointing”.

Dr Strathdee stepped down due to “personal reasons” last year and the inquiry was relaunched in October 2023 with Baroness Lampard, the barrister who led the investigation into Jimmy Savile, as chair. 

NHS staff who refuse to give evidence to the UK’s largest-ever mental health inquiry face arrest under the new powers given to the probe as it can compel people to come forward and give evidence on oath.

The statutory public inquiry is looking into the deaths of up to 2,000 mental health in-patients at NHS Trusts in Essex

Those identified died while they were a patient on a mental health ward in Essex, or within three months of being discharged, between 2000 and 2020.

At the relaunch, Baroness Lampard said she was minded to extend the timeframe the inquiry is looking at so the end date was moved from 31 December 2020 to 31 December 2023. She was also considering inclusion of NHS patients treated in the private sector or by private providers.

Ms Caro campaigned for a statutory public inquiry while another of her sons fell seriously ill and was hospitalised for four months. She has regularly fought her local services for appropriate care for her son, who is autistic, but the stress and financial strain has led to her putting her house on the market.

She told i: “When we briefly met Baroness Lampard I explained that my health had been seriously compromised because of all of this and I felt terrified and at risk. I asked that something be done to ensure that witnesses were not hurt by the agencies they’d exposed openly without help. Nothing has been done.

“The reason why Chris died was ignorance and a negligent refusal to consult and work with carers. They didn’t care to understand nor connect. I feel the same about this inquiry. We spoke to Priti Patel [the former Home Secretary is MP for Witham, in Essex] and she agreed that we all needed to work together to get this right.

“She publicly requested this for the inquiry, and yet we feel unconnected and disregarded. Some of us as at risk under these services … are very aware that nobody is even protecting us now.”

Ms Leahy told that she felt the families were being used as “pawns”. She said: “Nothing should narrow the scope of the inquiry. I found myself rejoicing [when the statutory terms were announced] but then feeling depressed like it won’t go anywhere. My family’s confidence in the new chair is very minimal.”

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.


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