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The family of a severely mentally ill woman who lay dead and undiscovered in her flat for more than three years said they were unable to have any contact with her because of privacy laws.

Laura Winham, 38, had schizophrenia, struggled to look after herself and had become estranged from her family, who she thought were trying to harm her.

She was found in a “mummified, almost skeletal state” at her social housing flat in Woking, Surrey, by police and relatives in May 2021, but she is thought to have died in November 2017.

The markings on her calendar stopped shortly after the words: “I need help” were written on it.

Winham’s body lay undisturbed and no determined efforts to establish her wellbeing were made, despite her disability benefits being stopped and her gas cut off. She also failed to reply to letters, phone calls, texts, or answer the door.

Her family said welfare and care services had failed to act on clear signs Winham’s health was deteriorating in the months and years before her death and had neglected to carry out routine checks that would have led to the discovery of her body.

Although the family believed Winham had a care plan in place, they said they could not get information because of privacy laws.

“She didn’t want contact with us,” her sister Nicky told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. “She refused contact from the mental health team with her family, which she was allowed to do, which prevented doctors from speaking to us, or hospitals.

“Laura thought that we would harm her. She believed that from the beginning that she was sectioned probably up until she died, and that made it extremely hard for us to keep contact with her.

“And we tried. In the end, we didn’t have personal contact but we did send letters and cards and text messages but the relationship over the years became extremely strained.”

She added that the family “didn’t know how ill she had become in the end”.

“We would have done anything for her. We know how it looks: it looks like we didn’t care, and we did,” she said.

Winham attended school and university and grew up in a loving family, her siblings said.

But she developed mental health problems and did not return home after the first time she was sectioned in 2006.

The family said they took the “very difficult decision” to limit their contact with her as it put her under “enormous stress”.

When their father became ill they tried again to make contact, to no avail.

When he died they continued to visit her flat.

Winham’s brother Roy recalled how he discovered her body.

He said they were about to leave when he decided to check one more time. He peered through the letter box and saw his sister.

“When I peered through the letter box, it looked like blankets was there, but as I looked down I thought I saw a foot,” he said.

After getting a better angle through the letter box he said “you could see the face, the body …”

He told the ambulance service he thought she had been “dead a while”.

He added: “Maybe it was meant to be that I found her, I don’t know, but something made me go back up the stairs that day. But unfortunately, it’s left me with something that haunted me for a long time.”

The family said they are speaking out to try to prevent similar cases.

Nicky had previously said: “We always hoped she would get better with professional help and that one day our contact would resume.

“We never believed for one second we would end up finding her dead on her floor having laid there for so long without anyone knowing.

“We are sharing our story because we do not want any other families to suffer in this way.”

Winham’s mother, Marilyn, said: “We didn’t think it’d be real. We never thought we would find her like that. You would never think somebody would be there for that length of time.”

The family said it was “beyond belief” what had happened.

Nicky said they wanted to know “how this has happened” and how their sister had “slipped through the net”.

Her mother added: “And also why she was left so long”.

A pre-inquest review is due to be held on Monday.

A Surrey county council spokesperson said: “This is a truly tragic case and our sympathies and deepest condolences are with Laura’s family and friends. It’s important that every aspect of this complex case is reviewed and we’re committed to participating fully in the inquest process. This will include providing any information that is needed to support the coroner’s inquiries.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “This is a tragic case and our sincere condolences are with Ms Winham’s family.”

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