PATIENT confidentiality rules are posing a “real problem” for the treatment of mental health patients, Oxfordshire’s coroner has said.

At an inquest yesterday, coroner Darren Salter agreed that vulnerable patients were not always in a position to decide and manage their own treatment.

Mr Salter was speaking as he concluded an inquest into the death of 22-year-old Emily Stiff of Riverside Road, Oxford, who was found dead in the River Thames in March.

Although he declined to record a suicide verdict because he said Miss Stiff was not in touch with reality at the time of her death, a statement from her GP at Beaumont Street medical practice in Oxford revealed the University College London student had a history of depression.

Her family were aware of that, and she was on medication for it, but they did not know until after her death that she had declined an offer of a professional assessment for bipolar disorder.

Her father Matthew Stiff told the inquest he felt there was a “systemic problem” in mental health treatment where such decisions could be left entirely in the hands of vulnerable patients.

He said: “My concern is that people who may be mentally ill are not always in a position to know what is best for them.

“Emily was a student moving between practices – there was no way of making sure the ball wasn’t being dropped.”

Mr Salter said it was not the first time he had encountered the issue, adding: “This is a really difficult problem and it is difficult to know what the answer is. I have raised it with the mental health trust (Oxford Health) and the feedback I get is that they do what they can – encourage a patient to involve their family, perhaps bring their family in for consultation, but they can’t enforce that.”

Earlier this month, Mr Salter told Kennington Health Centre to keep a closer watch on mentally-ill patients after he had to conclude an inquest into the death of paranoid schizophrenic Elizabeth Lomas, who was found dead at her home in January.

Last year, the family of 61-year-old Jackie Gulliford from Eynsham, who died after going missing, asked why they were not told she was at risk of self-harm.

Yesterday, her son James Gulliford said he agreed with what Mr Stiff had said, adding: “I think there is a disconnect between the NHS as a mental health profession and families. The best way for people to recover or manage depression is with help from their family.

“If people are aware of the full circumstances things can be very different.”

Yesterday, Mr Stiff told Oxford Coroner’s Court that in the days before his daughter’s death, her erratic behaviour had given the family cause for concern.

Miss Stiff had been staying with her parents and sister in February when he said he met her on the stairs, dancing, rolling her head and saying she could “feel the marbles inside it”.

The Oxford Times:

  • Died: Emily Stiff

The next day, February 24, she gave her father a poem she had written entitled “The Rebel Pawn”, which alluded to a troubled person and had references to death at the end. That night she left the house shortly after midnight wearing her father’s coat with the printed poem still in the pocket.

The coat was later found on the bonnet of a car in East Street on the banks of the Thames, where it is thought she entered the river.

Mr Stiff he said he did not believe his daughter had committed suicide “in the conventional sense” because she was not herself.

Mr Salter agreed with that assessment and gave an open conclusion to the inquest.

Oxford Health refused to comment.