The last time Robert Wade saw his son Richard alive was when he watched him drive away in the back of a police car. Richard had called the police and asked to be sectioned during a psychotic breakdown. He was on his way to safety – or so the family hoped.
Twelve hours later, Richard was dead. He had locked himself in a bathroom and taken his own life.
Robert, 64, a senior lecturer at the University of Suffolk, and his wife, Linda, 69, retired head of health at West Suffolk College, didn’t then know about the high rates of patient suicide at The Linden Centre.
Five years later, they are still seeking answers about their son’s death – and have now joined a campaign with other bereaved families calling for a full public inquiry into deaths in Essex’s mental health system.
“We want to know the truth about what happened,” says Linda.
The call for an inquiry comes in a month when Essex was found to have the highest suicide rate in the UK, with 501 people taking their own lives in the county between 2017 and 2018. It has a rate of 13 deaths per 100,000 compared with a national average of 11 per 100,000, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Richard was nicknamed ‘Electric Blue’ for the lightning flash that struck when he was born and the bolt of energy he brought into any room. Unlike his brother, also Robert, 33, Richard was a joker who never slept.
“I was lucky to have two lovely sons,” says Linda, quietly. “Although we’ve lost one, we have 30 years of wonderful memories.”
After graduating from Warwick University, Richard went on to get a Master’s in History and a PhD. In 2013, he published his first book on Conservative Party Economic Policy, interviewing people like Geoffrey Howe and Norman Tebbit.
But depression that started around the age of 22 plagued him and he became convinced he had the degenerative motor neurone disease.
“When he was well, he was outgoing and happy, with extended friends in all areas of his life,” says Robert. “When he went into his depression, it was the reverse. He thought he had no friends, even though a hundred came to his funeral. He was under the impression his body was wasting away; in the real world he was as strong as an ox. There was a massive gulf between the two.”
A fortnight before he died, Richard’s health deteriorated and he moved into his parents’ house.
“You could get through to him for a while, but it was like there was a massive magnet pulling his mind back,” says Robert. “He wasn’t expressing suicidal intent until right at the very end, but he was clearly depressed and troubled.”
“We would have done anything to help him,” adds Linda. “Anything.”
On May 16 2015, Richard called the police – he was going to hurt himself. It took five hours for a crisis team to find him a bed, in which time he became increasingly agitated and accused his father of wanting to kill him. At 11pm, he was driven away as a voluntary patient.
“The last memory I have of seeing him alive was the back of his head disappearing down the road,” says Robert. Linda remembers hugging him goodbye.
What happened the next day is seared onto their memories. After reading about the Linden Centre’s poor record, they jumped into the car, hoping to move him to a private hospital – he had insurance through his work at PwC. But when they got there, Richard was missing.
“Pandemonium broke out,” says Robert, who recalls staff racing around as alarms went off. When staff eventually located Richard in a locked bathroom, they saw their son’s legs on the floor. “I felt dread at what was coming.”
The Wades later came to wonder, due to conflicting statements, whether a member of staff had in fact found Richard lying on the floor before they arrived, locked the door and pretended to not know where he was.
Despite being a suicide risk, Richard had been left with the tools to take his own life, including a pair of scissors, razor blades and a dressing gown cord.
Richard’s heart restarted, but his brain had stopped functioning. He looked unrecognisable.
“One of the doctors cried while they described the situation to us,” says Robert. Linda adds, “I lost half a stone in a week, it was a terrible shock. How did this happen? He went into that place for care and he died.”
When the day came for Richard’s life support to end, Linda says she kissed him on the lips, breaking into tears at the memory. “I promised him justice, whatever it takes and however long,” says Robert, comforting his wife.
The inquest found “Richard’s risk of suicide was not properly and adequately assessed and reviewed” and “appropriate precautions were not taken”. Three months before Richard’s death, John Beecroft died from hanging in the same room. The Care Quality Commission had recommended the Linden Centre remove ligature points, which it says it has now done.
The North Essex Partnership NHS Trust admitted failings in Richard’s care and accepted that he wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t occurred. It added that all CQC recommendations have been closed and it has improved safety around ligature points.
Essex Police dropped a corporate manslaughter investigation into 25 deaths, including Richard’s and Matthew’s, in 2018, but did find “basic failings”.
“We have a really serious incident and the police are turning a blind eye,” says Robert.
Melanie Leahy’s son, Matthew, was also found hanging in his room at the Linden Centre, seven days after he was admitted in 2012. He told Melanie, 55, he had been drugged and raped, and traces of ‘date rape’ drug GBH were found in his blood in the postmortem, along with four needle marks on his groin.
Since then, Melanie has been campaigning for a thorough investigation and an overhaul in mental health care. The Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsman last year identified a series of significant failings in Matthew’s care.
“In time it’s going to be ‘Matthew was murdered’,” she says. “I just have to prove it.”
Melanie has brought the Wades and other families together to campaign for a public inquiry. Within a week of its launch, nearly 20 families had signed up. She expects the numbers to climb “well into three figures”.
“People continue to die,” she says. “In hospital, you’ve got staff sleeping on suicide watch of one-to-one vulnerable patients. Then you have people having no contact with the community mental health team for more than six months.”
She adds that the pandemic has worsened the situation, with patients isolated in their rooms and response times for serious incidents increasing because staff need to don PPE. The Essex Partnership University NHS Trust is investigating nine deaths from the beginning of this year.
“You have a gap of five years and people dying for the same reason,” says Robert. “Until they acknowledge the way the deaths took place, nothing will change.”
Sofia Dimoglou’s mother, Val, killed herself 12 hours after she was discharged from the Kingswood Centre, Colchester, despite having told staff of her intention. Sofia lost confidence in the health system over Val’s care, from constant changes in diagnosis and treatment to a suicide attempt in 2013, which she blames on prescription drugs.
“Staff kept telling her she was well enough to leave hospital, even though she said she was going to commit suicide,” says Sofia, 60, an English and Drama teacher. “The pressure on people who are mentally unwell to leave hospital is devastating.”
Sofia has developed a skin condition and had to take time off work due to the stress caused by her mum’s death and subsequent investigations.
“It feels like this is the first time somebody might listen,” says Sofia. “They need to recognise there is a problem.”
Like other campaigners, Sofia hopes a public inquiry could prompt a change in Britain’s mental health care.
“Everyone knocked asylums, but people were safe in them and couldn’t leave,” she says. “Mental health care has gone backwards. What happened to my mum was systematic and uncaring.”
In the long-term, the Essex families want an overhaul in care across the UK – “It’s a nationwide problem,” says Melanie Leahy, lead campaigner, whose son also died at the Linden Centre.
Last week, Tom Browne, the father of two autistic children, said Kent County Council had offered him £100,000 to move out of the county for five years after he formally complained about support.
The North Essex Partnership NHS Trust said patient safety is at the centre of its work.
“We extend our deepest condolences to those impacted by the death of people in the care of the former North Essex Partnership NHS Trust,” said a spokesman. “We continuously strive to improve care and have and will continue to act on all CQC recommendations, including addressing the failings that contributed to Richard Wade’s tragic death.”
Robert still spends hours each week working on Richard’s case. “I haven’t really grieved, it’s exhausting,” he says.
“It has changed the future we thought we would have,” says Linda. “Richard getting married, having children – it’s all gone. We were a lovely family with two nice young men doing well and it’s been ripped apart.”
Families who want to join the call for a public inquiry should contact Nina Ali (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Priya Singh (email@example.com) at HJA Solicitors