'I punched a ghost thinking it was an assassin': The troubling thoughts of one of Lancashire's hundreds of missing mental health patients

At least three mental health patients have died after going missing from psychiatric units across Lancashire in recent years, an investigation has revealed.

Hundreds of patients, some of whom pose a risk to themselves, vanish from mental health facilities every year, with two dying while missing in 2016 and one in 2017.

The Harbour in Preston New Road, Marton (Picture: JPIMedia)

The Harbour in Preston New Road, Marton (Picture: JPIMedia)

One of them is understood to be Adam Carter, 36, who jumped to his death in Blackpool two years ago after running out the doors at The Harbour in Marton.

He had been allowed out of the unit and into the grounds with a member of staff, his inquest was told, though Mr Carter was able to escape into the town centre, where he killed himself.

Lancashire Care, which recently changed its name to Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust after taking on extra services, said one of the three deaths “was attributed to suicide” and “fully investigated”.

It was unable to say how many patients are currently missing, saying it does “not hold this information in a readily accessible way”.

It said patients are considered missing when “their whereabouts are unknown” and they are a risk to themselves or others, vulnerable, a child, detained under the Mental Health Act, or have not been fully assessed yet.

Those who return later than expected from authorised leave are also counted, the trust said, with 275 patients missing or absent without leave (AWOL) in 2014.

That rose to 415 in 2015, 456 in 2016, 449 in 2017, and 446 last year, figures obtained by The Gazette showed.

Alison Cobb, an adviser at the mental health charity Mind, said: “When someone is in hospital with a mental health problem, they are very unwell and need to be in a safe, therapeutic environment until they have recovered sufficiently to be discharged.

“Mental health services have a responsibility to ensure the safety of those in their care and any failings, including people absconding, should be thoroughly investigated.”

In 2016, a then-22-year-old man went missing from Lancashire Care’s flagship hospital The Harbour, in Preston New Road, after failing to return at a set time.

The Prestonian, who claimed on social media the Russian military talks to him through a ‘brain modem’, was found hiding in woodland close to the Ribby Hall Village several days later.

He wrote on social media shortly afterwards: “Tonight, I woke from my sleep to find a shadowy figure approaching alongside my bed.

“After my recent postings on Facebook, my instant conclusion was that it must have been some kind of agent trying to assassinate me.

“I quickly reached out and attempted to grab or punch the translucent man, but when I did he disappeared completely. I know that people can implant dreams and images via the chip but this was something different.

“After less than a minute of contemplation, it was confirmed that this had nothing to do with the chip and that it may have in fact been a spectral being.”

His last post before an almost three-year absence from Facebook for treatment, which included a spell in isolation, added: “Got attacked by a man tonight and had to punch him to the floor.”

A violent patient also escaped from The Harbour in 2018, before being caught in a field near Haven’s Marton Mere holiday park.

One whistleblower told The Gazette the seriously ill man kicked his way out of a room, similar to a police cell, that should have been triple-locked.

The anonymous worker said the patient then fled the suite, “walked behind the hospital and made his way to the main entrance, where he proceeded to gain access to the kitchen area, frightening staff, and smashing windows”.

Other units run by the trust include Guild Lodge in Preston and Longridge Hospital.

Earlier this year, NHS figures showed 3,462 patients went missing nationally from April last year and March this year, a 4.4 per cent rise on the previous year.

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive at the mental health charity SANE, said: “We are increasingly concerned at the number of patients across the country that go missing for one
reason or another, particularly those who become acutely ill without their medication and who can become a risk to themselves and others.

“We need urgent action to prevent patients going absent, or we risk an increase in suicides amongst this group.”

When asked how it stops patients going missing, Lancashire Care said “consideration is given” to a number of factors, including the risk they pose to the public and the “likelihood of the patient being harboured” by friends, family, or abusers.

It said: “Some patients are in hospital voluntarily, they are not detained and can therefore leave the hospital of their own accord.

“If a patient is detained under the Mental Health Act, leave has to be granted by a responsible clinician, usually a patient’s consultant.

“Staff members do, when necessary, accompany patients on leave to reduce the risk of them going missing. This is based on clinical risk assessment.

“Consideration is also given to the environment in which care is provided – if there is a high level of risk of a patient going AWOL they will be treated in a more secure environment and observation levels will be based on the person’s risk.”

Staff at mental health facilities in the county follow an action plan in the event of patients going missing – to keep them and the public safe.

That includes alerting police and family members, as well as checking places they are known to visit.

A Lancashire Care spokesman said: “The trust has a safety and security protocol on each ward that is followed for managing leave.

“This involves taking a descriptor of the patient, details of their leave and other routine checks.

“If a patient does not return, this triggers the ‘missing person and absent without leave procedure’ that we have in place with the police.

“It sets out the process for proactively managing the risk of a patient going missing and ensures agencies work together to reduce the possible harm to a patient and others in the event they go missing.

“Practical steps taken when someone is missing include contacting family members, notifying the police, reviewing CCTV, checking mobile phones, diary entries and locations the person may frequent.

“The trust works closely with the police to use the measures they have to locate a missing person when appropriate.”