Scandal of lives stolen by the state
Published by The i paper (26th December, 2022)
Ryan Addison lives in his own home in Doncaster, 10 minutes from his mother, Sharon. He went to see Blackpool illuminations last week, a three-hour drive from their town. In recent months he has been for a walk on the beach at Cleethorpes, visited Knowsley safari park and had pub meals with his family – along with this year’s Christmas lunch. Ordinary pleasures, similar to those enjoyed by millions of fellow citizens. Yet each one is a significant step back to normality for this 33-year-old man who had almost half his life stolen by the state, even locked up alongside violent criminals in secure hospitals, for the “offence” in Britain of being autistic.
I first wrote about Ryan three years ago, when he was struck in solitary confinement, during my campaign to highlight the suffering of autistic people and those with learning disabilities trapped in psychiatric hellholes. Their stories were chilling – citizens being abused mentally and physically in horrifying breaches of human rights, all in the heart of the National Health Service due to deficiencies in social care. Parents told of children medically coshed, violently restrained, stripped to underwear, fed through hatches like wild animals and forced to sleep on floors. Survivors said they were left traumatised for life. Meanwhile, fat cat firms creamed off huge profits from inflicting atrocities on a disempowered community.
Sharon, 63, told me how Ryan was 17 years old when their lives imploded. She had three children but noted some oddities in her youngest one’s behaviour such as his quietness, moodiness, dislike of surprises and tantrums if they took a different walk to school. But he was also affectionate, kind and had a superb memory. Then one day she found him standing in his bedroom with a razor blade in his hand and blood on his wrist. “It was obviously a cry for help since they were only superficial cuts, but it was still terrible,” she said.
She responded like any mother confronted with such a disturbing scene by seeking help from the NHS – a move she has bitterly regretted ever since. “It’s a terrible thing to say but one piece of advice I’d give any parent is to never seek help from mental health services,” she says damningly.
Doctors diagnosed depression and Ryan agreed to enter a specialist unit. But all the “experts” failed to spot his autism. Sending such a person into an environment with loud noise and lack of routine inevitably intensified his mental struggles, which spiralled out of control. This led to incarceration for 12 years in forensic hospitals despite never having committed a crime – cut off from family, pumped full of drugs that made his body swell and teeth rot, and left with bruises and broken bones after restraint by staff.
After Sharon plucked up the courage to raise her son’s case with me, his story was picked up by other media. She became a spirited campaigner to free him and other autistic men, women and children imprisoned in abusive conditions. Her efforts paid off: in January, after 15 years locked up, Ryan was finally freed from detention under the Mental Health Act, able to return to more normal life and start recovering from appalling stress inflicted by the state. Today he lives with a team of carers in the community, and his “meltdowns” have fallen from near-daily to about once every three months, reflecting his more contented mind in a regime tailored to his needs.
“It’s so lovely – he is so much happier,” said his mother. Since I am haunted by some cases I have heard, it is good to hear a positive story. Yet numbers of those being locked up barely budge. Official figures claim there are more than 2,000 people with learning disabilities or autism detained in English specialist hospitals, although other data suggests substantially higher figures. More than 100 people have been held more than two decades.
“As a society, we’ve got a duty to get this right,” Matt Hancock told me, before ditching politics to head off into the celebrity jungle. Yet when I highlighted the case during his tenure of Tony Hickmott, then stuck in solitary confinement for a decade, the privately owned hospital legally silenced his parents and threatened to throw him out.
Psychiatrists had agreed Tony was “fit for discharge” in 2013 but officials failed to create the correct care package. Later it was found the NHS was paying the firm £650,000 a year to hold him in one room with a side bedroom and toilet. He had to speak to staff through a hatch, even asking to switch channels on television.
Tony was finally freed in October after 21 years, four months and three days in detention – and more than 1,000 visits by his now-elderly parents. Now he lives much closer to their home; last week he also went to see the local Christmas lights. “Tony loves it where he is in his own house and has some dedicated staff,” said his mother Pam. She fears, however, that there is still insufficient expertise to cater for his needs, especially since he remains “badly damaged” by the trauma of long incarceration.
Let us hope he manages to reintegrate more fully with his community. Meanwhile, Sharon hopes that over the coming months her son’s care team might be slimmed down, medication reduced and remaining legal restrictions on liberty lifted. Yet as she says and Ryan’s case proves again, how utterly shameful it is that bureaucrats, doctors and politicians continue to inflict such destructive barbarism and flagrant denial of human rights. This family suffered needless pain in a scandal that almost everyone accepts is morally wrong, medically foolish and financially wasteful.
There have been so many media exposés of abuse, damning inquiries, and promises of action for more than a decade, but still there is grotesque systemic inertia that leads to torture for thousands of citizens. Christmas is a time for families, New Year for hope. So when will this horror story end?
Categorised in: Health, home page, Public policy, Social care