Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

40 recent ATU deaths revealed

40 people with a profound learning disability or autism have died in assessment and treatment units over the last 2.5 years, including nine aged under 35.

ATUs are in-patient units intended for short-term assessment, treatment and “stabilisation” of people with mental health conditions who display challenging behaviour.

The figures were revealed following a Sky News investigation, though the broadcaster has not established / disclosed the cause of the deaths.

The news follows on from a BBC investigation earlier this month that found the use of restraint on adults with learning disabilities rose from 15,000 in 2016 to more than 22,000 in 2017.

NHS England say the increase can be explained by better reporting of incidents. However face down or prone restraints are banned under government guidelines and these alone have increased from 2,200 incidents in 2016 to 3,100 in 2017.

The Department of Health and Social Care have already said that the Transforming Care programme to close ATUs – set up after the Panorama documentary into abuse at Winterbourne View – will continue beyond its planned end date of March 2019.


Sir Stephen Bubb, the author of two progress reports on the ATU bed closure programme, said the government’s failure to act was putting patients’ lives at risk.

“There are deaths of people in these institutions, some of them unexplained. We know there are significant problems and there will be at some stage another scandal and yet we know what we need to do.”

“The idea that in the 21st century you lock people up, you restrain them, you use prone restraint, you hold them down, I think is disgusting, it is barbaric and it is unacceptable, and it needs to be made unlawful.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the deaths were “heartbreaking” and pointed to the £2 billion pumped into mental health at this week’s budget.

Dr Sara Ryan, who’s autistic son Connor Sparrowhawk died following a breach of health and safety law by Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, tweeted “f*cking disgrace”. 


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