Conditions 'horrendous' in Belfast mental health unit

By Marie-Louise Connolly
BBC Northern Ireland health correspondent

Image caption,
The buliding was built around the time of the famine in Ireland

A patient with mental health problems has highlighted what she has described as the "horrendous conditions" where she is being treated in Belfast.

The woman wrote to the BBC from her hospital bed at Windsor House.

She said the "antiquated" state of the building, which dates to Victorian times, was not conducive to helping people get better.

During heavy rain last week, she said, buckets were left in the day-room to collect water leaking through the roof.

She also listed a series of problems that she claimed had not been fixed for weeks, including a broken shower room door, a light bulb that needed replaced in the night-time toilet, and sinks and toilets which regularly blocked.

Her views have been echoed by a former patient.

The woman, who did not want to be identified, described the building as "cold and grey".

"I was challenged by the environment every day for weeks," she said.

"I had to put up with that for weeks and months."

At a recent inquest into the suicide of a patient at the Belfast Hospital, the coroner concluded that the unit was not fit for purpose.

John Leckey called for major improvements across the board to Northern Ireland's mental health facilities, describing them as the "Cinderella part of the health service".

While the staff at Windsor House were praised for the high level of care they provided, the inquest heard that it was the building itself that was letting patients down.

Mr Leckey said he would be writing to the Health Minister Michael McGimpsey with a number of recommendations for the future.

There were plans to demolish Windsor House and build a new facility on the site.

Some former mental health patients believe that is not the answer.

Cathy McCullough, who runs a support group for women called Women 2 Gather, was treated at Knockbracken Healthcare Park in Belfast.

She said Windsor House should be shut down and the funding re-directed to Knockbracken.

"It's an excellent site because there are green fields around and patients can walk around the grounds and have peace and quiet," she added.

Image caption,
Bernie McNally said a new unit should be built on the City Hospital site.

Dr Philip McGarry, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists agreed.

"In many cases, if you go in with depression, the environment would make you even more depressed," he said.

"You'll not find medical and surgical patients putting up with the conditions which psychiatric patients have to tolerate.

"It's important that we move on from buildings which are not fit for purpose to build modern units fit for the 21st Century."

Director of Primary and Social Care in Belfast, Bernie McNally, said it was hoped Windsor House would close next year, preferrably "sooner rather than later".

"I can see why people think that being able to walk in green fields and grassy areas would be very good for people's mental health, but we believe that the idea of an asylum on the edge of town, with walls around it, is a thing of the past," she said.

"The people who are acutely mentally ill are the same as everyone else. If they require acute hospital care, then that should be on an acute hospital site. That reduces the stigma and they would have access to all the other hospital services."

Ms McNally said Windsor House had been built just after the famine.

"It is not fit for purpose. We believe, and all the departments are at one on this, we believe that it should close as early as possible next year and that we should build a new acute hospital on the City Hospital site," she said.