Family of York woman claim suicide was preventable and say she was let down by mental health trust

The family of a North Yorkshire woman who took her own life whilst under the care of a troubled mental health trust say she was abandoned during lockdown and her death was preventable.

Frances Wellburn’s should have had weekly contact from the Tees Esk and Wear Valleys  NHS Foundation Trust (TEWV) but was left alone for 3 months at the height of the pandemic. 

Her sister and niece has joined calls from other bereaved families for a public inquiry into the trust.

It comes as we’ve seen official NHS figures showing hundreds of deaths were reported by the trust, using the national patient safety incident reporting system over a three year period. 

56-year-old Frances Wellburn from York had a career in the NHS as a manager, but her family say when she needed it - it wasn’t there. 

In 2019 Frances was sectioned under the mental health act, suffering psychotic episodes and spent three weeks at Cross Lane Hospital in Scarborough. 

She was discharged into the care of a community team whose job it was to check in on her on a weekly basis, but an internal report carried out by the trust found that during the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, Frances went three months without contact.

Credit: Family Photo

Frances’ family say her mental health deteriorated badly, and although contact with the TEWV did resume, Frances took her own life in July 2020. 

Lauren Wellburn, Frances' niece said: "There were just multiple errors upon errors, right up from personnel level to the board and I feel more strongly than ever that this was preventable. I don’t want what happened to her, things that could have been done differently forgotten."

In response to this, Elizabeth Moody, Director of Nursing and Governance, Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust said: “Our thoughts remain with Frances’ family during this very difficult time. We undertook an investigation into the care of Frances and shared the findings and actions with her family.

"We will continue to discuss any further concerns they may have. We have to respect the privacy and confidentiality of our patients so we’re unable to comment publicly about the care of any individual.

"Our priority is to provide safe care to the people in our region and we have made significant changes to help us achieve this. We are implementing new technology that will free our staff to spend more time on providing high quality patient care, and we have invested £5.4 million to create additional job roles across the trust.

"We are also working closely with patients and carers to create safe and personalised care together with them.”

Trust Headquarters, Darlington

Frances’ death is one of many under the trusts care.

Between April 2017 and March 2020, the Trust recorded 357 deaths on an NHS database of  for reporting “patient safety incidents.”

Patient safety incidents are defined as unexpected or unintended events which could have or did lead to harm.' It doesn’t automatically mean there have been errors made in a patient's care or that this resulted in their death.

We approached the Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation trust about the number of deaths and it revised the figure to 248. It said this new figure did not include those deaths that were down to natural causes, drugs or misadventure. 

The Trust also said it records deaths that appear to be from suicides or self harm  of former patients, cared for within the last 6 months, regardless of whether a patient safety incident has occurred. It also says NHS guidance makes clear that the reported data does not provide the actual number of safety incidents occurring or indicate whether or not an organisation is safe.

The National Reporting and Learning System was set up in 2003 and is due to be replaced. A new national 'NHS Learn from patient safety events (LFPSE)' service is in the final stages of development as a central service for the recording and analysis of patient safety events that occur in healthcare.

Alistair Smith is  a solicitor representing families who have lost loved ones under the care of trust.

Frances (L) with niece Lauren Credit: Family photo