Sophie had autism. So why did her life end in a special unit for mentally ill people?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (3rd February, 2019)

Ben and Nickie Bennett had just finished dinner at home on a bank holiday Monday when the doorbell rang. Standing outside was a police officer who told them that their teenage daughter Sophie had self-harmed.

The couple sped with the police from their home in Streatham, South London, to nearby Kingston Hospital, where they discovered their 19-year-old daughter had tried to kill herself in the bathroom of a residential care unit and was on life-support.

Two days later, their beloved daughter was dead.

‘With the right support and care she could have had a rewarding and fulfilling life,’ said her mother. ‘She was such a lovely girl.’

Sophie, a competitive swimmer who was also gifted at art and music, was one of four children from a loving, professional family.

But she also had autism, among other issues. It sparked a spiral of anxiety and stress that once she moved to secondary school and hit adolescence led to her being sectioned in a secure psychiatric unit and, ultimately, to terrible tragedy.

The Mail on Sunday’s investigations into the locking-up and treatment of teenagers and young adults with autism and learning disabilities have provoked five inquiries after disturbing revelations of abusive treatment with forced medication, frequent violent restraint by teams of adults and children fed through hatches in solitary cells.

They also showed how private operators have muscled in on the sector, charging fees of up to £730,000 per patient annually – yet many families say supported care in the community is cheaper, more humane and usually delivers better outcomes.

Sophie’s parents are different. They have no complaints over her initial care and sectioning under mental health laws in an NHS hospital. Yet their daughter’s heart-breaking case raises similar concerns over private outfits and monitoring of units.

‘She was our child,’ said Nickie, 55, a former teaching assistant. ‘You are meant to protect them and keep them safe as best you can. But we will always wonder if we could have done more.’

Like many autistic girls, who mimic others in an attempt to fit in socially, she developed an eating disorder that at one stage caused substantial weight loss. She also started serious self-harming and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

An inquest into Sophie’s death in May 2016 opened ten days ago. The jury heard the troubled teenager ended her life at Lancaster Lodge in Richmond, South-West London, which was meant to help psychiatric patients return to mainstream life.

There were claims her mental health deteriorated amid disruption at the charity-run home after it turned into ‘a boot camp’, cut trusted therapists and employed unqualified staff. At least one other resident previously attempted suicide.

Clarissa Jeffrey, a friend and fellow patient, told the coroner that it felt almost as if ‘residents were running the house’. She added that the changes seemed ‘fuelled by trying to… save money rather than trying to help the people in the lodge’.

Serious concerns had been raised by whistleblowers, leading to an unannounced visit by health watchdogs, and local authorities moving other residents from the unit. At the time of Sophie’s death, there was only one other patient there.

Her mother said she thought her daughter’s progress was unravelling, adding that she was poor at expressing herself. Speaking through tears, she told the court that ‘there was clear signs she was trying to say to people she was not coping’.

The inquest, which continues for another week, will determine whether these issues and the upheaval played any part in Sophie’s death.

‘I ask myself all the time why did this happen?’ Nickie told me. ‘If she had not gone into hospital, would we have ended up here? Adolescent psychiatric wards are full of very troubled people and there are problems with learned behaviour for girls like Sophie.’

Several other families have told me similar stories – of how teenage girls with autism suffering from adolescent stresses picked up problems such as self-harm and eating disorders inside secure units.

Sophie, who had thrived in primary school, sank into depression and extreme anxiety after joining secondary school.

Although she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her parents believe autism lay at root of her mental and social struggles.

‘She became very paranoid that people did not like her, although she had great friends from primary school. She was never very confident,’ said Nickie. ‘She would come home very upset and not want to go to school.’

After two tentative overdose attempts, Sophie ended up in the care of mental health services and was then sectioned for six months in an NHS hospital. For the next four years she was in and out of specialist services until that fatal day in 2016.

‘When she was inside units we were totally distraught she was there, and when she came home we could not manage her feelings of self-hate,’ added Nickie. ‘She thought she was a terrible person but she was the kindest, gentlest girl you could know.’

Sophie’s father Ben, an executive with a government agency, cherishes his memory of a ‘shy, happy girl’ before her state of mind deteriorated. He says ‘with hindsight’ they can see the significance of autism at the core of his daughter’s issues.

Whatever the inquest verdict, it is impossible to determine precisely what drove this talented teenager to take her own life.

But one thing is clear: Sophie’s sad death raises disturbing new questions over a system supposed to offer sanctuary for people that have a condition that makes them different.

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