Changes to system after Nicola's death

SIGNIFICANT changes have been made to the way mentally ill people are treated in Suffolk after an Ipswich woman committed suicide within days of being discharged from hospital.

Josh Warwick

SIGNIFICANT changes have been made to the way mentally ill people are treated in Suffolk after an Ipswich woman committed suicide within days of being discharged from hospital.

The body of Nicola Duncan was found in her VW Golf at Walberswick on May 30 last year, only a fortnight after doctors had released her from a seven-week spell at St Clement's Hospital in Ipswich where she had been receiving psychiatric treatment.

The 34-year-old, of Lancaster Road, killed herself by taping a length of pipe between the car's exhaust and its front window after penning a suicide note.

Today her family called for a campaign to be launched to have therapies which don't rely on drugs - called talking therapies - made more widely available.

At an inquest at Ipswich Crown Court yesterday, Suffolk Mental Health Partnership Trust (SMHPT) said a raft of improvements had been implemented following Miss Duncan's death.

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Bosses claimed an investigation had prompted the changes, which included greater access to specialist treatments, better information for patients' families and a formal referral process.

The inquest heard how Newcastle-born Miss Duncan had been forced to wait five weeks before receiving Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT), which, her parents claimed briefly “brought our daughter back”.

However, she relapsed soon after, with medics believing her confusion had been induced by a relationship she had embarked upon with another patient.

Miss Duncan's mother, Sonia Duncan, told the inquest that the relationship had been “highly unsuitable”. She also said her daughter had written a 71-page document while at St Clement's which contained details on how she planned to commit suicide.

“She learnt how to commit suicide and the manner in which she did it from fellow patients,” said Mrs Duncan.

“If anybody had looked at that book they would have known how seriously disturbed Nicola was.”

Dr Tim Webb, who chaired the investigation panel, said the trust had learnt from Miss Duncan's death.

“I certainly hope these lessons are being put into practice now,” he said. “This is one of numerous examples where we can do something simple which will make a big impact.”

The coroner, Dr Peter Dean, recorded a verdict of suicide, which he said took place on or around May 22.

He said: “There were a lot of people who were trying to do what they could for her, but they faced enormous difficulties. Her stay on the ward was prolonged by her difficulty in accessing ECT as soon as the need was recognised.

“With the benefits came the risk of relapse which may not have been fully appreciated at the time. One can see why that may have been misinterpreted and why a relapse might not have been recognised.”

Would you like to pay tribute to Nicola Duncan? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail

NICOLA Duncan's family today welcomed the changes implemented to mental health services in Suffolk.

In a statement, they said: “What we wish to see resulting from the tragedy of Nicola's death are improvements in the treatment of the mentally ill in Suffolk.

“Lessons must be learned so that other families are not put through the same traumas that we have suffered.

“The investigation into Nicola's death by the Mental Health Trust showed up areas where improvements could be made, particularly in the speed of access to ECT and talking therapies.

“With regard to the latter, the government has given its backing to greater use of cognitive behavioural therapy in the NHS because it is recognised that talking therapies do work and it has stated that resources will be made available for this to happen.

“Surely this is a better approach than simply dolling out drugs.

“We have lost a loved one in circumstances which were distressing in the extreme and we owe it to Nicola that if any good at all can come from this tragedy it should be to the benefit of other unfortunate victims of mental illness.

“We will miss her everyday for the rest of our lives but we know now she has found peace from the mental torment she suffered.”

Miss Duncan's mother, Sonia, said both she and her husband, Ian, consulted a solicitor with regards to taking the case further but as Miss Duncan was over 21 and did not have any dependent relatives, they are not able to pursue any legal action.

Mrs Duncan, 67, from Cotton, said: “What we want to come out of this is to have more talking therapies in Suffolk. Our daughter spent several hundreds of pounds sourcing her own therapies because the point is the therapies were not available to her elsewhere.

“We hope her death has not been in vain. They say they will put things right but when are we going to see any evidence of that?”

Suffolk Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust today said it was increasing the availability of so-called 'talking therapies' in the aftermath of Nicola Duncan's death.

Trust spokesman Nicola Brown said: “As a result of the inquiry we carried out into Nicola's care and treatment, we have greatly improved the accessibility and funding for ECT treatment and are enhancing the information we give to patients and their families.

“The inquiry highlighted areas of which we were previously unaware, including a need to formalise the referral procedure for ECT, and these have also being addressed.

“In addition, and although our medical director Dr Tim Webb concluded that talking therapies would not have been significantly beneficial in Nicola's case, we are increasing the availability of psychological therapies on the wards.

“We are pleased that the current Suffolk PCT has given us the resource to recruit a lead psychologist to head this up in our inpatient areas and this post will be re-advertised shortly.

“Suffolk PCT has also listened to our recommendations in improving access to psychological therapies in primary care settings, such as GP surgeries, too and we are recruiting to new community posts as well.

“I would like to extend the Trust's condolences to her family and friends, as well as to the staff who looked after her and who cared about her.”

Talking therapies, or 'non-drug' therapies are also referred to as psychological therapies - they differ from purely psychiatric treatment in that the latter uses medication.