When a young Blackpool woman felt she was losing her battle with mental illness, she had to travel more than 60 miles to get the help she desperately needed.
Andrea Wade, of Crestway, Layton, has suffered from anxiety and depression for more than a decade but when her problems got worse in recent months she found herself with few options.
“I am banging the door down asking for help and I am being told time and time again that there is none for me,” the 24-year-old said. “I have to wait for it.”
The former UCLan student, who was forced to abandon her musical theatre studies in 2015 because of health problems and recently took up her education again this year, has suffered from depression from the age of 13.
Her problems worsened in August but she says she struggled to access the help she needed, and eventually sought private care at the Priory Hospital, Altrincham – more than 60 miles away – after visits to three different local GPs.
She said: “I have to look after myself until I get help. This would not happen with any other illnesses.
“If this was physical this would not happen. You wouldn’t be told to get on with it and live with your illness.
“There are too many people trying to access a service and there is not enough of that service to go around.”
Her mum, Christina Sweeney, 41, said: “We came to a point where we felt Andrea could have made an attempt on her own life because that’s the only way she feels like she can get any help.
“We have spent 10 hours in A&E at Blackpool Vic and after 10 hours we had a 10 minute conversation and were sent away with a mental health leaflet.
“There’s just not enough funding or staff in our area.”
According to figures released by Public Health England earlier this year, the proportion of people between 16 and 74 living with common mental health conditions in Blackpool is 21.2 per cent, compared to 15.6 nationally. Some 55.3 per cent of sufferers found treatment for depression was proving successful, against 60 per cent nationally.
All other parts of Lancashire ranked above the national average for mental healthcare.
Andrea is a champion of the ‘Time to Change’ campaign to end harmful stereotypes about mental illness, and encourages other people to talk about their problems through her website, called ‘It’s Okay To Talk’.
She also frequently discusses the challenges both she and other mentally ill people face using a video diary, which she publishes online, and also spoke out on BBC Radio 4’s ‘World At One’ broadcast about the agonising waiting times for specialist care.
The 24-year-old said: “I find that there is a lot of stigma towards mental health and a lot of the time people who are mentally ill can be stereotyped as dangerous or crazy, but for me I found the majority of mentally ill people I have met are some of the kindest, most caring people.
“Somebody who is mentally ill is more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.
“I have been seen by the NHS for a long time and I understand there are waiting times and everything is stretched. There is very little compassion or care for mentally ill people out there. I know a lot of people within my own mental health campaigning. I know of some people who have had to wait two weeks for specialist care, whereas here in Blackpool we have some of the worst waiting times.
“When I went for help at the end of August I was told February was the shortest wait. This is what so many people are facing every day in the area.
“All across this country there are so many doctors and nurses and therapists that want to help and that’s why they went into that job, and there are so many professionals that see equality between mental and physical health. But unfortunately there are still a lot of medical professionals that don’t.”
A spokesman for Lancashire Care, which is responsible for mental healthcare in the area, said: “We absolutely recognise the need for people who are in mental distress to be able to get access to help and support quickly. People who are experiencing a mental health crisis do not need to wait to be seen. We have worked with our partners, Blackpool Teaching Hospitals to open a specialist unit in A&E where people who are experiencing a mental health crisis can be assessed quickly and signposted accordingly to other services for on-going support.
“People with mental illness who are known to our services have a care co-coordinator and can contact them or the team they are under for on-going support and guidance to stay well and manage their symptoms. We also provide the Acute Therapy Service (ATS) in North Lancashire, this is an innovative service which supports those in crisis and who present with low mood or who are deemed a risk of suicide or self-harm. The service equips people with the skills to manage their mental illness in order to prevent a relapse of their condition and enable them to stay well.
“For those not in crisis but in need of counselling or talking therapies we provide a Mindsmatter Service in Fylde and Wyre, the current wait for this service is around four weeks. We also provide the Wellbeing and Mental Health Helpline which is accessible seven days a week. The helpline provides immediate access to specially trained practitioners who provide a compassionate, listening service and can signpost to services for additional support.
“In Blackpool and Fylde, we have good links with third sector organisations who provide a wide range of support for people with mental illness in the area and the Trust works closely with them.”
NHS Blackpool Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said: “It isn’t appropriate for us to comment upon an individual case of patient care. We appreciate that very occasionally; patients do not receive the experience which we aspire for, however lots of work has happened locally to improve access to mental health services.
“The local Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service, Supporting Minds, continues to meet national targets for access and waiting times as well as demonstrating commendable recovery rates amongst patients.
“In addition to this, we have also established integrated teams of professionals, including specific mental health workers, within six neighbourhood areas across Blackpool to provide care closer to home for those who need it. This provides a real parity of esteem between mental and physical health for local residents and means that GPs, community nursing and others are able to work much more closely together to remove some of the previous barriers between different services.
“Providing more mental health support in the community in this way means that the teams of professionals are able to identify at an earlier opportunity when an individual may require support for a mental health need.”
Mental health treatment has come under the spotlight in Blackpool in recent years.
Three women went on to take their own lives following treatment at The Harbour mental health hospital in Blackpool.
Tracey Lynch, 39, was found dead in October 2014, shortly after causing a serious crash on the M55 when she grabbed the steering wheel after a lone therapist was tasked with driving her to the Oswald House rehab unit, Oswaldtwistle, in September.
Sally Hickling, 20, was found at the psychiatric unit with a ligature around her neck in July 2015. Her inquest ruled that experts at the Harbour ‘inappropriately’ reduced her observation levels and left her alone for 21 minutes – more than double what they should have.
And in November this year an investigation was launched after, Diane Balderstone, 59, was found hanged at her Morecambe home just three days after being discharged from the hospital.
In 2016, the mum of a young woman, who climbed on top of the car park at Wilko in Talbot Road twice in two days, criticised the medics who allowed her to leave hospital.
The woman, in her 20s, was detained under the Mental Health Act after being talked down from the rooftop on the first day and taken to The Orchard, a mental health facility in Lancaster.
Hours later, she was discharged after being assessed by two psychologists, only to climb back up the next day. This time she was arrested and taken to the cells at Bonny Street - but was released again.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, her mum, from Marton, said: “I just feel very let down by the mental health services.
“It’s very disjointed. She will work with one service, and then be put on a waiting list for another.
“She did a course recently and she came out with a lavender bag she can smell. What good is that?”
A new team of mental health workers based in Blackpool were welcomed last month.
Two new mental health workers and two new ‘wellbeing practitioners’ were announced, to be based at the Whitegate Drive Health Centre.
Paul Maynard, Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said: “It is vital we reach people, we provide young people with the support they need before they reach a crisis point.”
Lancashire Care, which is responsible for mental health care across the county, currently has 337 beds in Lancashire comprising dementia, older adult, psychiatric intensive care and acute treatment beds.
In cases when there is no available bed, the trust reaches out to neighbouring North West NHS organisations to find a bed locally before admitting someone to a bed outside of the area.
Last month, there were 24 people being treated outside of Lancashire. On average, the trust admits seven people per day.