Scotland must not turn Karen McKeown away again – leader comment

Karen McKeown made repeated attempts to get help from the health service for her mentally ill partner in the final week of his life

Luke Henderson and 
Karen McKeown. Picture: Contributed
Luke Henderson and Karen McKeown. Picture: Contributed

In the week before her “best friend, partner and soulmate” took his own life, Karen McKeown tried on eight different occasions to get help from the NHS. And, on each of those eight occasions, she was “turned away and abandoned”, she told MSPs yesterday.

Before he died, Luke Henderson, a father of two, had been suffering from the hallucinations and having suicidal thoughts.

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“Every professional I spoke to, I made clear that Luke was planning on taking his own life,” McKeown said at a Holyrood public petitions committee meeting yesterday. In calls to NHS 24 and visits to GPs and hospital accident-and-emergency departments, “time after time, I pleaded for help”. She found her partner dead on 29 December.

It is hard to imagine the mounting fear and mental anguish of that final week of his life and MSPs were clearly moved by the case.

Labour’s shadow Health Secretary Monica Lennon warned there were gaps in the health and care system, adding “people fall through those gaps”. Conservative MSP Brian Whittle spoke movingly about how he had felt the need to threaten to publicly shame a GP if a suicidal friend was not given appropriate help, saying he was “absolutely convinced that if I hadn’t taken that action, that person wouldn’t be with me today”. And he added: “You shouldn’t have to go to those lengths to keep your loved ones safe.”

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Partner of man who took his own life tells how she begged for help eight times a...

Now, it is important to note that NHS Lanarkshire said an investigation had found that the correct procedures had been followed. So no one should rush to judgement and seek to blame health service staff, the vast majority of whom are hard-working, dedicated people who often go beyond the call of duty and, for the most part, do a difficult job very well.

Instead, amid a reduction of the stigma around mental health problems, we should perhaps consider whether the structures in place and the amount of resources available are sufficient.

And if any mistake was made in Henderson’s case or any others, we should remember that we are all fallible humans, capable of making errors of judgement. Good management means creating a working environment that minimises the risk of making a mistake, particularly when lives are at stake. Politicians, of course, need to balance many demands on the public purse, but saving the lives of its citizens is surely among the most pressing.