So, last night Newsnight did a feature (34min in) on the ongoing ‘effort’ to get people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour out of assessment and treatment units (ATUs), more than two years after their colleagues at Panorama exposed the abuse of patients at Winterbourne View in Bristol. They interviewed Connor Sparrowhawk’s (LB’s) mother Sara Ryan and stepdad Richard Huggins, who made the point that when they had Connor admitted to Slade House in Oxford in 2013, they took it for granted that he would be safe and did not imagine for a minute that an NHS unit would let him drown in the bath. The same day, of course, it was announced on social media (but not in the news media) that Thomas Rawnsley had died following a heart attack (and as yet unexplained injuries) in a similar type of unit in Sheffield on Sunday.
The BBC also did a feature on their website (I am not sure if it was broadcast on TV) in which their disability correspondent Nikki Fox took a ‘look inside’ what the BBC calls a “challenging behaviour unit”, the Willow Assessment Unit in Southampton. This unit is run by Southern Health, the same NHS trust that ran Slade House, a fact not mentioned in the report. A member of staff takes the correspondent into a number of different types of rooms, including an “admission” room in which a bed has blue mats on each side of it in case the patient, who has epilepsy, falls out (a fact which may make it safer, but surely they could manage a more homey touch than plain blue plastic), a room for a ‘lady who self-harms’ (not the woman in the mobility scooter; that’s the reporter) and finally the “discharge flat”. The admission room had an ensuite bathroom, and the staff member pointed out all the features that are meant to reduce the risk of self-harm, right down to the curved edges to the surfaces.
Pause the video at 0:49 and you’ll notice another of Southern Health’s less homey touches: the toilet in that ensuite bathroom neither has a lid nor a seat, which means the patient has to sit on the cold china, something you don’t find anywhere else except in some very old public toilets or, perhaps, in prison (not sure if that’s even true in this country) and would definitely remind the patient that he or she is in an institution (in some other mental health institutions, they watch over you as you wash or relieve yourself, especially when you first arrive). Perhaps it’s possible to self-harm by getting a loo seat off the pan, but you’d need those implements first. The lack of a lid makes the whole place much less hygienic, as a lid ensures that when the toilet is flushed, no dirty water or excreted material is thrown up into the air, taking any germs with it. Some serious diseases are spread that way.
The six-bed Willow Unit is quite a new unit, having only opened in June 2012. The CQC has no record of ever having inspected it; given the severe problems at Southern Health’s other units, they should make this a priority. And of all the places the BBC could have chosen as a showpiece for ATUs, why this place?
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