QUESTIONS have been raised again about security at Inverness’s New Craigs Psychiatric Hospital after members of the public had to come to the aid of a patient who left the unit wearing only her nightclothes.
The woman was spotted by a passing cyclist wandering along a nearby road at about 5.15pm on Thursday.
The witness, who did not want to be named, said he wanted to talk about what had happened because it was "obvious" there was an issue with security at the hospital.
"I wasn’t actually paying that much attention when I passed at first," he said. "But after about 100 yards it was like I had actually processed what I’d seen and I decided to go back.
"The woman seemed to be in quite a distressed state. She was wearing a dressing gown over a nightie and had just socks on her feet. Her arms were up in front of her face."
The man said when he tried to speak to the woman she did not respond and simply kept walking before another man and a woman, who were out running, arrived on the scene.
"The man phoned the police and the woman and myself again tried to talk to this patient," he said.
"She seemed to be heading up towards the woods nearby and eventually we managed to get her to sit down, though again she didn’t say anything.
"She was holding her hands tight around the top of her dressing gown and I thought at first she was just keeping herself warm, but when I took her hands away she seemed to have a torn up bedsheet wrapped tight around her neck.
"I couldn’t get any explanation from her about what that was about but she seemed upset and obviously very vulnerable.
"The police attended pretty quickly and then an ambulance, but I would say that altogether my part in the incident lasted about 20 to 30 minutes and in all that time nobody from the hospital appeared at all."
The man said he found out later that a motorist who had also spotted the woman reported what she had seen directly to staff at the hospital.
"She said that they told her they would have to check if anybody was missing, but other than that didn’t seem particularly concerned or in a hurry to go and look," he said.
"It seems obvious if people like this can get out there is something wrong with security at the hospital and they really need to look into that."
Local councillor Alex Graham said he was not aware of this particular incident but he thought patients rarely absconded.
"I wouldn’t like to comment on the hospital’s security arrangements but I would hope that, as in this case, where a member of the public comes across a patient like this, they would go to their aid and immediately let the hospital know," he said.
Fellow Inverness West member Graham Ross said patients making their own way off the hospital grounds was "not uncommon" but he was not aware of any particular concerns in the local community about it.
"At the end of the day, if someone is determined to get out they will find a way to do it," he said.
"I know that the hospital has procedures in place for when something like this happens and overall I think the regime is pretty satisfactory."
New Craigs opened in 2000 as a replacement for the former Craig Dunain Hospital and was hailed at the time as offering the kind of care people should expect of a 21st century health service.
In 2013, questions were asked after high-risk serial sex offender Scott Murray from Grantown-on-Spey managed to walk out of New Craigs and remain at large for 12 hours.
Undergoing a compulsory treatment order after being jailed for 18 months for breaching a Sex Offenders’ Provision Order banning him from entering swimming pools, gyms or leisure centres, there was an eight-hour delay between him going missing and the public being informed that he was a high-risk offender and potentially dangerous.
In 2008, Inverness mother Laura Campbell also queried security at the hospital after a missing patient was found hiding in the bedroom of her Kinmylies home.
The former Northern Constabulary also called for improvements to security after 117 patients were found to have absconded from the facility within a 12-month period, including one patient who went missing twice in two weeks.
A spokesman for NHS Highland said: "NHS Highland does not comment on individual cases. However, the utmost reassurance can be given that New Craigs Hospital is committed to providing person-centred, effective and safe care.
"This is provided in a therapeutic environment and provides care in the least restrictive way, according to the severity of the patient’s illness.
"There are stringent procedures in place to ensure all patients have a risk assessment and management plan in place, which includes a missing persons procedure.
"This procedure is completed on admission and reviewed throughout the admission."