Autistic Children and Mental Health Hospitals

Earlier this year a Tweet struck me deeply; it affected me like very few Tweet’s have before, and as you can imagine for someone working in the disability field that’s saying something.

It was a Tweet from Rachel Lucas of Sky News (@RachelSkyNews), who had been doing a piece about NHS inpatient care for people, including children and young people, with mental health conditions, learning disability and/or who are Autistic. Along with a photo, this is what she Tweeted…

“This photo is of a parent visiting their autistic teenage child in a hospital in England. Holding hands through a hatch in the door to their room. This is mental health/learning disability/autism inpatient care at the moment. How can this be right? This is heartbreaking.” Rachel Lucas @RachelSkyNews

I saw the image, I read the Tweet, and tears filled my eyes.

I imagined that this was my 17-year-old son, James, who is Autistic, has learning disability, and has experienced mental health issues over the past couple of years.

A little later, as I calmed down a bit (but not much!), I retweeted Rachel’s Tweet, commenting as follows:

“How, for the love of all things good, in a progressive, developed, prosperous nation, can this be allowed to happen. This is a national disgrace; it brings shame on us all. It has to stop. Please Retweet this as much as you can. #MentalHealth #Autism #LearningDisability #Children” @Mark_J_Arnold

Rachel has been researching into this issue for a while, see the article she wrote for Sky News here:

https://news.sky.com/story/line-18-victorian-social-care-system-is-failing-the-vulnerable-11540609

(Warning, it’s a heartbreaking read)

Her article shines a light on the atrocities that are being committed all the time to children and young people, as well as adults, by a system that is clearly not fit for purpose.

Rachel quotes one Mum who says, “My Autistic son deserves a life, but he’s locked up.” before highlighting that her son has been in secure residential care for 17 years!

The views of families seem to be ignored by a system that seemingly can’t cope, clearly doesn’t provide appropriate staff training, but that has ultimate power over the futures of those who are referred into these secure units.

As Rachel points out in her article, challenging behaviour is often used as a reason for institutionalising young people with mental health issues, learning disability and/or who are Autistic;

“Normally, challenging behaviour is a sign of an unmet need. And that misunderstanding is what campaigners argue leads to the overuse of restraint, sometimes face down, seclusion and sedation. One family we spoke to told us how their son was banging his head against a wall. Rather than assessing what may be the reason for this behaviour, staff restrained and medicated him.

He is non-verbal and was unable to communicate that he was suffering from a severe ear infection. That is not challenging behaviour, he was in pain. What is obvious is that using restrictive interventions, like restraint, can in fact lead to the deterioration of someone’s well-being and mental health and can have a long-lasting impact.”

Last week, it happened again.

Another news article highlighting this same issue appeared on the BBC News website: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-50252079 Seemingly, nothing has changed since Rachel’s investigation earlier this year, the same atrocities are still happening.

People are dying in these institutions, 40 over the past 2 ½ years alone, nine under the age of 35-years-old. 250 children are incarcerated in this way.

This is happening in the United Kingdom, in 2019. This could happen to any of our children and it’s happening on our watch.

As Rachel points out in her article, “The shameful part to the story is that everyone involved knows what needs to happen but years after government commitments, words have not been turned into actions.”

It needs to end, now. We all need to campaign for the sake of all of our children until it does.

About Mark Arnold

Mark heads up Urban Saints pioneering additional needs ministry programme and is co-founder of the ‘Additional Needs Alliance’, a learning and support community. He is a ‘Churches for All’ partner, a member of both the ‘Council for Disabled Children’ and the ‘Living Fully Network’, and serves on the executive for ‘Children Matter!’ Most importantly, he is dad to James, a 17-year-old Autistic boy with Learning Difficulties and Epilepsy.

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