How can Matt Hancock sleep?

Published by The i paper (26th August, 2019)

When Christie Harnett was sectioned under mental health laws earlier this year, the doctors insisted it was for her safety. The teenager was struggling with self-harm and saying she wanted to die, so her family readily agreed. She spent eight weeks in a Newcastle hospital where staff were gentle and kind, putting pillows beside her if she tried head banging and talking though troubles when they felt overwhelming. Then she was moved to West Lane Hospital in Middlesbrough.

The 17-year-old had been there before and did not want to return. ‘She hated the place,’ said her step-father Michael. She knew adults would pile on her when she was having a meltdown, then forcibly inject drugs that sent her to sleep. Her family complained of an illegal strip-search and being left naked in front of a male carer. Patients said staff told them they were ‘a nuisance’ when not eating, ‘silly’ when they self-harmed, ‘attention-seeking’ when trying to kill themselves. ‘They made me feel like a burden and I just wanted to disappear,’ said another teenager. ‘I was so suicidal already. It just made those thoughts and feelings so much worse.’

Eight weeks ago Christie came home for the day. As she left to go back to hospital, she turned to her mother Charlotte and said: “I love you loads.” A few hours later, two fellow patients found water flowing under the bathroom door. Inside Christie had taken her life – despite being in a secure unit under the supposed care and observation of skilled staff. ‘She was failed miserably,’ said Michael.

Just like her friend Nadia, also 17, who killed herself in the same place six weeks later. The two teenagers organised a prom together the previous year, dressing up in fine gowns and posing for pictures since they could not make their school events. Now they are both dead, leaving two devastated families and fresh questions over fatal failures of a dismal mental health sector.

Christie died during an inspection by the Care Quality Commission, sparked by ‘a serious incident’ some eight months earlier. The watchdog stopped new admissions, then finally ordered West Lane’s closure last week on safety grounds. Over recent months investigating such atrocities, I have heard too many of these tragic tales from distraught families. Nadia was autistic, while Christie’s doctors thought she was on the spectrum.

Her story is horribly familiar: an academic high-achiever and talented singer who was affectionate to her family, misread emotions, struggled with friends, bullied for being different. She mimicked self-destructive behaviour to fit in, especially when stuck in secure clinics that rely on seclusion, violent restraint and forced medication. Some end up dead, others damaged for life.

Many of the worst examples are run by ghastly private operators, which moved in like sharks to gobble up big profits while paying frontline staff peanuts and relying on inadequate agency workers. But West Lane was run by the hallowed national health service – and the CQC report is chilling. When Christie died, there were 25 adolescent patients, subjected to a shocking 1,789 restraints over six months.

One ward with six patients saw 311 ‘rapid tranquillisation’ incidents over this period. Staff logged cases when patients ended up in hospital as ‘no harm’, re-used outdated syringes, had out-of-date medicines and admitted there was no therapy.

Sara Ryan, whose teenage son died in supposed care of another trust, commented that ‘the layers of abuse, degradation, disrespect and disgust’ merge across the 45 pages of this grim report. She is right. Yet in one more layer of grotesque contempt, it has emerged that 13 staff suspended for alleged ill-treatment were simply shifted by Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Trust into other jobs, despite claims they were abusing tormented teenagers and even dragging them around by the feet.

At root this is not just about cash or training; it is about common decency and respect for fellow human beings, however different or disturbed. These issues reflect wider societal failings. Once again we hear the platitudes from health chiefs, hollow posturing from politicians, empty promises of lessons learned. Just like all those other times we glimpsed behind locked doors of units detaining people with autism, learning disabilities and mental health problems.

Now we will add West Lane to the sordid list of abusive institutions from Winterbourne View through to Veilstone, St Andrew’s, Meadow Lodge and Whorlton Hall. The CQC admits Britain has a ‘punitive culture of care’ in a system not fit for purpose – yet the scandal goes on and people such as Christie keep dying.

How can the health secretary Matt Hancock sleep when he does nothing to protect these young people and prevent more families plunging into the dark pit of grief?

These issues highlights an array of state failures: dire child mental health services, dearth of community provision, a decrepit care system, failure to control rapacious operators, under-diagnosis of girls with autism. I know of one hospital where 34 patients have died over the last nine years, highlighted by a father desperate to free his daughter.

I reported on the death of another teenager partly due to neglect; it turned out her unit was run by a clinical lead lacking legitimate medical doctorates. These are complex and challenging cases. But Christie, Nadia and too many others like them did not deserve to die due to the shameful failures of people, places and institutions supposed to protect them.

Once again, I write through tears after talking with bereaved parents. ‘I’m heartbroken,’ said Charlotte, telling me she hated sending her child back to a hospital that did not seem to care. ‘We were so close and she has left a massive void in my life.’

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