Tom Tait

The NHS in Scotland would be much poorer today if it was not for the selfless dedication of people like Tom Tait.

“As an advocate, you do not know why a patient is there, you just serve their needs as required.”

The retired parish minister from Blairgowrie has given more than 30 years of voluntary service to the NHS since becoming a member of his local health council.

For the past ten years he has served as a volunteer advocate with the Patients’ Advocacy Service at the State Hospital in Carstairs providing essential support to patients to help them with any problems they have.

He visits Carstairs around five times a month and on average will see between four and six patients on each daily visit. “It can involve a wide variety of things. I may help to write a letter on their behalf, or assist them in making a complaint. If someone is not happy with the food they are getting, I can take than up with the dietician. I also accompany and support patients at their case reviews and help them prepare questions they may want to ask of the clinical team.”

He said there was some initial suspicion when the role was introduced. “I think there was a certain element within the hospital then who thought that patient advocates were people who interfered. There was a thought that a doctor or nurse was a patient advocate but the whole idea is that patient advocates should be independent of the staff,” said Tom. He is glad these attitudes have changed and the role has come to be seen to be increasingly valuable by both patients and staff.

Although the number of patients at Carstairs has reduced from 240 when he started to around 170 today, the workload has not diminished. This is in large part due to the introduction of Mental Health Tribunals which can review individual cases. Preparing and supporting patients to take part in these tribunals has created an extra stream of work.

Prior to becoming a volunteer advocate, Tom was a health council member for 20 years, representing the interests of patients in the NHS. This culminated in his appointment as convener of the Scottish Association of Health Councils which has since evolved into the Scottish Health Council.

When his term as convener ended, he was looking for a new challenge at a time that the Advocacy Service was just beginning at Carstairs. It seemed a natural progression and Tom has found it enormously worthwhile as well as personally satisfying.

“These are patients who have mental health problems and some may have learning difficulties. It may not be easy for them to express what they want. As an advocate, you do not know why a patient is there, you just serve their needs as required.”

“To see a smile on someone’s face who you have helped is really worthwhile. We are helping people who may have difficulty helping themselves. I have never found anyone who was not happy with the service they got.”

Tom Tait

The State Hospital

In 1948 the Hospital opened as the institution for mental defectives (correct term now is ‘patients with an intellectual disability’) and used as such until 1957 when 90 prisoners with mental illness from the criminal lunatic department at Perth were transferred to the Carstairs site along with staff. The combined institution then became The State Mental Hospital however its role changed very little. The Hospital would contain its patients, and then often as a secondary element offer treatment.

In 1984 the Mental Health Act was revised with much more emphasis being directed towards care and treatment. Change continued slowly.

In 1994 the State Hospital became part of the NHS in Scotland as a Special Health Board. This marked a major milestone in the Hospital’s development becoming the sole provider of special secure mental health services for patients from Scotland and Northern Ireland.

2008 is a historic year in that the Hospital celebrates the formation of the National Health Service which came into being on 5 July 1948 and it is also the 60th anniversary of the first patient to be admitted to the State Hospital. It’s also an exciting time because 60 years after the opening of this Hospital, a new State Hospital fit for the 21st Century is being built. Construction was celebrated with Shona Robison, MSP, Minister for Public Health cutting the first sod for the building work on site on 29 April 2008.

We have indeed come a long way in advances in the care and treatment of patients, and improving and modernising services for patients continues to be a priority.