Man found dead at beauty spot just hours after being turned away by Hartlepool health team

Police search the sand dunes in Seaton Carew. Photo: Jordan Crosby.
Police search the sand dunes in Seaton Carew. Photo: Jordan Crosby.

A MAN with a history of depression was found dead at a seaside beauty spot just hours after being turned away from a mental health unit.

Michael Armstrong, 52, was found on the morning of March 7 this year by a dog walker in the water at the Blue Lagoon, in Seaton Carew.

Mr Armstrong had been described as being “withdrawn” by his concerned family and was taken to Sandwell Park, a mental health facility, where he asked staff if he could be admitted after an assessment.

The inquest at Hartlepool County Court heard that two members of the crisis team at Sandwell Park had decided to allow Mr Armstrong to leave despite him asking to be admitted.

It was also heard that an assessment of his mental state showed him to be at a “significant” risk of suicide though it was explained in the inquest that the word ‘significant’ was not deemed as a serious possibility.

But after members of the unit’s crisis team spoke to the unemployed storeman and his brother Graham at an appointment on March 6 it was agreed that he could leave the facility in Lancaster Road and stay with a family member until a second assessment the following day.

Mr Armstrong, who lived in Wansbeck Gardens, was dropped off at the home of his other brother Paul by Graham at around 6pm and he let himself into the address with his own key.

It later emerged that Paul was not at home, and “alarm bells” were raised the next day when the brothers discovered Michael was missing.

Paul said: “When Graham rang me and said he had dropped Michael off when I was not at home, I was worried then that something was not right.

“We checked at his own home and he wasn’t there. We didn’t know where he was, we thought maybe he had been locked up or something.

“He had been in Sandwell Park before and he was known to the staff, but he showed a marked decline in the weeks leading up to his death.

“It was noticeable to me. He was normally talkative, but he had become withdrawn.”

Since Mr Armstrong’s death Tees Esk & Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust - which runs Sandwell Park - has reviewed procedures and a decision to discharge patients is now taken by a senior member of the mental health team.

David Brown, director of operations for the Trust, said: “If there is an admission suggested, regardless of the community team’s view, then the crisis team makes that decision.

“Sometimes people are admitted too easily and that isn’t helpful in supporting the patient.

“We can see following this case that there is a value in taking this a step further.

“We have now built in that where there is a difference of opinion, then more advice is sought. Prior to that it was the crisis team which we asked to make what is often a very difficult decision.”

Mr Armstrong’s rucksack, which contained an empty bottle of whisky and a second bottle which was unopened, was found by a dog walker on sand dunes at Blue Lagoon.

His body was discovered by another dog walker about 10 yards into the water on the morning of March 7.

A post-mortem which was carried out by forensic pathologist Mark Egan, of Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, found high levels of alcohol in his system as well as a large quantity of anti-depressant drugs.

Hartlepool coroner Malcolm Donnelly said: “Given the likely effect of the alcohol in his system, the combination of drink and drugs in his system may have led to Michael’s death but not directly caused it.

“It is a very sad case. Nobody intended any harm to Michael, and we know there were lots of things in his life that he found difficult to deal with.

“But I’m satisfied that the decision to allow him to leave Sandwell Park and release him into the safety of his family was not an unreasonable one.

“It is of little comfort to the family, but lessons have been learned since then.

“In reaching a conclusion, I need to be certain that he intended to kill himself.

“Taking into account all the evidence I have heard, and the post mortem report, I can’t find that beyond reasonable doubt to be the case.”

Recording a narrative verdict, Mr Donnelly added: “On or about March 7 2014, Michael Armstrong drowned while suffering from a recurrent depression disorder.”

Mr Armstrong’s family said after the inquest they were satisfied that all of their questions over the mental health unit has been answered, and would not be seeking to take any further action against the Trust for failing to admit him into overnight care.