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

Charities urge government to bring in new mental health law and end imprisonment of disabled people

Two charities are urging the government to bring the Mental Health Bill into law so that learning disability and autism are no longer defined as mental health conditions.

Mencap and the National Autistic Society say current mental health laws are “outdated” and are keeping thousands of autistic people and people with learning disabilities wrongly detained in hospitals across the country.

Four in 10 people with learning disabilities and autism do not need to be in hospital

Indeed, the latest NHS data shows there are more than 2,000 autistic people and people with a learning disability in mental health units.

These mental health hospitals are often unable to provide appropriate support, and the environment can lead to avoidable physical and mental deterioration.

In total, 92% of these 2,000 people are detained under the Mental Health Act, as currently, the Act classifies both autism and learning disability as mental disorders.

However, last year, the government published its draft Mental Health Bill, which proposed that learning disability and autism were removed and no longer recognised as mental health disorders.

The draft Bill was published more than 450 days ago. Since then, 2,135 autistic people or people with learning disabilities have been admitted to hospital – an average of around four people per day.

We know people living in these care settings are often far away from loved ones, and subject to overmedication, restraint, isolation and abuse.

Research shows that 41% of people do not need to be in hospital and their needs could be met in the community.

For these reasons, the charities are now urging the government to bring this draft bill into law to stop unnecessary admissions, speed up discharge rates and provide better protection for those who need it.

“One of the greatest human rights crises of our generation”

Tim Nicholls, Head of Influencing and Research at the National Autistic Society, says this scandal is “one of the greatest human rights crises of our generation.”

“Autism is not a mental health condition and mental health hospitals are not the right place for the vast majority of autistic people. Yet we’ve seen countless harrowing examples of people being locked away in seclusion and subjected to abuse in these settings.

“The trauma caused to those who are wrongly detained in hospitals, scared and alone without the right support they need, is unimaginable – with a devastating and long-lasting impact on their physical and mental health,” he said.

This trauma has been experienced by far too many individuals, including Adam Rodgers, who at the age of 31, has spent “half of his life” in hospital.

Adam has a learning disability, autism and ADHD, and his mum, Alison, says despite their wishes to for Adam to move into the community, he is still “no closer to coming out”.

“I have tried everything to bring him out into the community, but I’m not listened to. He’s not a threat to anyone. He should have been given the right support package in the community instead, not sent to a high secure hospital. He has deteriorated in this environment. It is the wrong place to meet his needs,” she said.

A greater focus on offering care in the community

NAS and Mencap are calling on the Government to reform this outdated legislation “without delay” so that:

  • Autistic people and people with learning disabilities cannot be detained in a mental health hospital under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act solely on the basis of having a learning disability or autism (without a co-occurring mental health condition).
  • There is a strong duty to provide community services to autistic people and people with a learning disability to prevent them from reaching crisis point in the first place, and ensure those in hospital can be discharged in a timely way.
  • Recommendations from Care, Education and Treatment Review actions are made enforceable, so people can be discharged from hospitals sooner.

Dan Scorer, Dan Scorer, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Mencap said: “Every delay in reforming the Act is another day where people are being wrongly detained. It is essential that the Bill be brought forward as a matter of urgency.”

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