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

“Barbaric” that thousands remain unnecessarily detained in mental health hospitals, charities say

The learning disability charity Mencap says it is “barbaric” that more than 2,000 people with learning disabilities and autism are still locked away in mental health hospitals.

The latest NHS figures reveal that at least 2,005 people are currently being held in inpatient facilities. The average length of stay in these hospitals is 5.4 years, but 350 have been detained for a decade or more.

Families are “living through a nightmare”

Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation say that hundreds of families are living through a “nightmare”, and are having to spend Christmas separated from their loved ones.

This is not because they have committed a crime, but simply because they have a learning disability or autism.

Within these facilities, restrictive practices (such as restraint and isolation) are still frequently used, with nearly 26,000 reported incidents in the past year.

The charities are now calling on the government to invest in proper community support to prevent these unnecessary admissions.

Dan Scorer, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the learning disability charity Mencap, said: “Imagine being locked away from your loved ones not just at Christmas, but indefinitely, simply because you have a learning disability, or autism. This is the reality for how many families this year.

“These are people who’ve been separated from their families and left to languish in these places due to a failure to provide the right care and support for them in the community, and this is unacceptable.

“The Government has promised to move people with learning disabilities and autism out of these hospitals and close 50% of inpatient beds by March 2024. To keep people locked up like this is Dickensian and barbaric, and only by investing in the community support and housing needed will we finally be able to end this nightmare.”

Elliot was detained for nearly five years due to a lack of support in the community

Elliot Dodds, 27, who is severely autistic and has a learning disability, is someone who has first-hand experience of being unnecessarily detained in a mental health hospital.

Elliot was admitted to a mental health hospital when he reached crisis point roughly five years ago. His family reached out to their local community care team for support, but they were unable to find suitable social care in the community to meet his needs.

Elliot spent four and a half years in hospital. His sister, Beckii Davis, said he had “an awful time” and spent “countless weeks in seclusion” with “no freedom or quality of life”. Elliot also sustained injuries while being restrained by members of staff.

“My brother is not a danger to anyone, and he’s never done anything to justify this treatment. Getting him out of that hospital was all I could think about,” Beckii said.

A ‘new normal’

Now, roughly five years later, Elliot has his own home and is supported in the community. Beckii says she can finally relax knowing he’s not stuck in hospital, but it will take a long time for Elliot to heal from his experiences and feel safe again.

“This is a ‘new normal’ for us and it’s hard accepting that a system which is supposed to keep families together has torn ours apart. I have very little faith in the Government. They’ve missed so many targets to close these hospitals and we need a strong support model that can provide people with the right care in the community.

“Now, I want to support other families who are going through this. I know that while we’re busy planning for the future, there are many people who will be separated and stuck in hospital this Christmas. They’ll spend Christmas Day like I once did, waiting for a phone call, and worrying what’s happening to their loved ones inside these terrible places,” Beckii said.

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