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Legal high claim of Camden mental health trust contradicted by figures

PUBLISHED: 11:37 03 November 2014 | UPDATED: 11:37 03 November 2014

Wendy Wallace, chief executive of Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, claimed legal highs were a real problem for the trust

Wendy Wallace, chief executive of Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, claimed legal highs were a real problem for the trust

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A mental health trust which blamed legal highs for its decision to send hundreds of patients as far away as Somerset for treatment has defended the comment, despite being contradicted by its own figures.

Legal Highs

Legal highs are substances not yet controlled by the Misuse of Drugs Act but which produce effects similar to illegal drugs like cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy.

Many are readily available over the internet or in specialist shops.

Substances found in legal highs are often untested on humans, meaning they can carry significant health risks, including psychosis.

One recent study by The Centre for Social Justice found legal highs led to 97 deaths in 2012.

The leading think-tank forecasts that on current trends the number of deaths could be higher than heroin by 2016.

Camden and Islington NHS Trust (C&I) last week continued to insist the need to send patients more than 160 miles away for treatment was unforeseeable when it made dramatic cuts to bed and nursing numbers in 2011.

The trust said the problem was instead, “in the main”, due to an unexpected surge in demand for services sparked by more people taking legal party drugs.

The explanation was first provided by the trust’s chief executive, Wendy Wallace, in an interview with the Ham&High in August.

She said then: “In 2011 we were seeing a number of our beds lying empty when government funding was falling.

“But since then we’ve seen a rise in demand. Legal highs are definitely an issue, causing illnesses like psychosis. There are more foreign nationals coming into the area and more cases of depression linked to the recession.”

But figures obtained by the Ham&High earlier this month show the trust recorded just two patients being admitted for problems associated with legal highs since it began collecting data at the start of this year.

Over the same period, almost 100 patients had been sent out of the area for treatment - which is widely considered to be poor practice and financially costly.

After being presented with the figures, the trust questioned its own statistics, saying it may have failed to code them properly.

Dr Vincent Kirchner, interim medical director, insisted: “Legal highs are definitely one of the reasons for the rise in demand. It’s a real issue for us. There are five to 10 people a month admitted to us who are using legal highs.”

He gave fresh statistics based on conversations with consultants, saying: “Between 20 and 30 per cent of the trust’s patients were admitted for substance misuse problems. And between 50 and 70 per cent of these have taken legal highs.”

The trust is continuing an investigation into the consequences of cuts made to beds in 2011.

Figures provided by the Health Service Journal show that between 2011 and 2014, the trust lost the second highest proportion of beds, 19.1 per cent, and the highest proportion of its nurses, 18 per cent.

In that time, the number of patients sent to be treated elsewhere went from 89 to 171. The trust has always insisted beds were lying empty when the cuts were made.

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