‘They are making people worse’

Published by The i paper (13th July, 2020)

It is almost two years since I spoke to the distraught father of Beth. She was a 17-year-old who loved music, animals and fresh air yet was incarcerated in hideous conditions of solitary confinement, growing obese from drugs and inactivity while fed through a hatch like a dangerous animal. She had fewer rights than a convicted killer simply because she had autism. The state, instead of supporting her needs in the community, locked her in a hellhole – a demeaning denial of human rights that symbolised Britain’s lack of concern for a disempowered group in society. The subsequent article sparked a furore, with a parliamentary debate and ministerial pledges of action to end an appalling example of state failure.

I went on to highlight how hundreds more people with autism and learning disabilities were held in abusive detention, exposing private firms and charities growing fat at expense of the National Health Service. I discovered similar – and sometimes fatal – deficiencies in wider psychiatric services, which fear risk and rely on restraint rather than offering dignity and support. Last week, my work was honoured with the prize for exposing social evils from the Orwell Foundation, sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

After a series of inquiries, it is now accepted that this atrocity of imprisoning people with autism and learning disabilities is wrong. Yet still it drags on; indeed, new incarceration units are being built. George Orwell was a writer who fought for freedom against the sort of exploitation, inequality, political doublespeak and neglect embodied by these grotesque policies, while the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is based on the belief that every citizen has the right to a decent home and prospects.

So let me tell you about Ryan Addison. Ryan was also 17 when his life imploded after a normal childhood in Hull with two older sisters and his mother, Sharon, who worked at the local Marks & Spencer. Sharon noticed a few oddities with her youngest child – tantrums if they deviated from their usual walk to school, constant touching of walls in the same place, dislike of surprises – but nothing to spark serious alarm. Then one day when they were home together, Ryan went into his bedroom and slashed his wrists.

“It was obviously a cry for help since they were only superficial cuts, but it was still terrible,” she told me. Sharon reacted by doing what any parent would do in such dreadful circumstances: she sought help and Ryan, suffering from depression, voluntarily entered a mental health unit after intervention from a crisis team.

But like so many other parents I have spoken to, she wishes that she had not sought assistance. For her beloved son, now aged 31, is still in the psychiatric system. Today he is stuck in solitary confinement inside the secure walls of a forensic hospital, held alongside violent criminals despite never committing an offence.

“I feel so betrayed,” she said. “They are not helping people like him but making them worse.” Ryan is autistic. Yet even inside the mental health system this went formally undiagnosed until two years ago. Failure to diagnose children and adolescents with autism is a major health scandal in Britain, wrecking so many lives while storing up subsequent problems when traumas explode due to lack of support or understanding.

Ryan should have led a happy and fulfilling life in the community with the right help. Instead, he became trapped in a dystopian nightmare, driven into intense mental and physical distress by a dismal psychiatric system that could not be less suitable for people with autism. At first he kept asking to come home.

Sharon – to her eternal regret – reassured him the doctors were going to make him better. Since then he has been in 10 more hospitals, his condition steadily deteriorating. At one stage, Ryan was restrained by nine carers and days later, a broken hand detected; they said he had been punching a wall, but there were no marks on his knuckles.

Then he was pumped full of such strong drugs that he surged three stone in weight, bumping into objects when he walked around in a daze. His teeth rotted due to medication, so a dentist had to remove 14 of them. He was given dentures that he lost when vomiting; two years later, they have still not been replaced. This is the dark side of the applauded NHS.

There have been moments of hope. When he was 20 he was let out and lived in a flat, but there was minimal support and he ended up being sectioned. Then two years ago a nurse specialising in learning disabilities arrived at his hospital in place of the usual mental health nurses. Soon his mother saw him blossom, reviving hopes he could return to the community. “He became more lucid, he was happier, he was just more normal,” Sharon said. “He became Ryan again.” Unfortunately, she left after a year.

When I ask Sharon how one nurse could make such a difference, her reply is chilling: “She treated him like a human being.” And in those seven sad words of a broken mother lies the failure of our social care and mental health system.Thepandemic exposed how social care is the forgotten public service.

But now go back to Beth, held in a way her father compared to the psychopath Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Thanks to the publicity and her father’s fight for justice, even thwarting a legal bid to silence him, her life has been transformed in a supportive environment for her needs. She can keep pets, do yoga, go outside when she wants and is, in the words of her dad, “a happy, contented 19-year-old”. When I called him, they were about to go fishing. Once again, Beth symbolises the flaws of an abusive system of so-called care – and shows there is a humane alternative to Britain’s Orwellian incarceration of citizens who are different.

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