On 1 March, Channel 4 aired a special episode of Dispatches: Under Lock and Key, which gave a disturbing insight into how more than 2,500 people with learning disabilities across the UK are locked up in hospitals, forcibly restrained and plied with anti-psychotic drugs that render them catatonic.
Five years ago, following a series of inpatient deaths, the government promised an end to this practice, vowing to move people out of large institutions and into local, personalised community-based care, but this has not happened.
Channel 4’s programme focused on St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, a leading provider of specialist mental healthcare in the UK, where a technique called prone restraint – or face down restraint – is commonly used on patients, including children and adolescents with autism and learning disabilities.
Any treatment, it soon became apparent to anyone watching the programme, centres largely on controlling patients with challenging behaviour. As a result, many patients keep getting worse, not better and parents face an uphill battle to secure their children’s release into community-based care.
The fact that thousands of young people with learning disabilities are still being locked up and treated like prisoners is nothing short of criminal. A learning disability is not a mental illness, and an institution like St Andrew’s is not the right place for a person with a learning disability, as many experts in the field of learning disabilities will confirm.
As the Dispatches programme showed, those who were lucky enough to be discharged into community-based care generally saw their quality of life dramatically improved; no longer needing medication and, with the proper support, being capable of a more independent life.
But with the NHS facing near collapse, and with the introduction of damaging cuts to disability benefits, the future looks bleak, to say the least, for the thousands of people forcibly locked up, denied their fundamental rights and treated as second-class citizens because of their learning disability.
What is a learning disability?
“A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example, household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life. People with a learning disability tend to take longer to learn and may need support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people.” (Source: Mencap)