High-tech barbarism

A picture of a very wide Victorian building, with a central three-storey block with two-storey extensions to the side. In the foreground is an extensive green. The sky is cloudy and grey in parts.

Last Tuesday evening there was a 45-minute programme on Radio 4 (part of its File on 4 slot) exposing the abusive treatment of an autistic teenage girl at the St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton, an institution which has been the focus of at least one other documentary exposing its treatment of adolescents, particularly those with autism, and adults as well as a number of inadequate CQC reports. My last entry was a commentary on the programme (which also exposed the failure of councils to protect people in care homes from abuse or to bring negligent management to book, which is why I recommend listening to it in full), but since then I have heard from Bethany’s father Jeremy on Twitter who answered some of the questions about her treatment the documentary raised.

One positive outcome of the programme was that the bits of a ballpoint pen which had become embedded in Bethany’s arm as a result of self-harm have been removed (this was after they had left it in for two weeks because it was supposedly too dangerous to take her out of her isolation room to do it). However, Walsall council — the same council who vetoed a community placement earlier this year — have also attempted to take out an injunction against Jeremy for displaying a picture of Bethany as the cover photo on his Twitter account. It seems they believe they are a better judge of her best interests than her own father, despite having nothing to offer her themselves. (Naming a living victim of rape or sexual abuse without their crime, or at all if they are under 18, is a crime, but parents of children in care, whether the care is the result of a question over the parents’ adequacy as parents or, as in this case, the child’s special needs often face demands not to identify their children; supposedly this is to protect their privacy but the presumption should be that the parents know best, as there is normally no prohibition on sharing information about one’s children’s lives and some parents overshare.)

Jeremy also filled us in as to why he is forced to talk to her through a hole in a door rather than being allowed in the same room as his daughter. The answer is that when he has the opportunity to visit, at weekends and in the evenings, regular staff are off duty and agency staff cover, and they are under strict instructions not to open the door no matter how calm Bethany has been during the day or whether it has been open all day or not. In other words, it is a case of cost-cutting and staff convenience taking precedence over the needs and rights of the patients; it is just easier for the institution to hire agency staff to cover periods where there are fewer activities such as education and therapy and the wards are winding down for the night or most people are asleep. The fact that this is the only time when some people’s parents can visit doesn’t get in the way of this institution-centred thinking or behaviour.

Jeremy also reported in a tweet earlier today (Sunday) that, shortly before Beth was transferred to St Andrew’s (when she was in a unit in Preston), the two of them had spent time on a nearby beach together without any staff present; yet now, they are not even allowed to be in the same room together? It does not make sense.

These people are not trying, and should not be in any kind of healthcare.

On many occasions I have seen media exposés of primitive mental health care abroad; one that got a large amount of media coverage was the spectacle of mentally ill people in Indonesia being chained to beds for extended periods (Human Rights Watch did a 75-page report on this [PDF] in 2016, complete with numerous pictures of people shackled to wooden platforms or metal bars, often in a state of undress); another was a girl in the Palestinian territories being kept in a cage in her parents’ back garden. These stories often have somewhat racist overtones, particularly when they are about peoples who have been campaigning for freedom but who, so goes the stories, keep intellectually disabled or mentally ill people locked up in cages. However, the abuses in some western psychiatric institutions often has a calculated cruelty to them and it is backed up with security that money and technological advancement can buy — high walls and fences, multiple locked doors, air-locks, cameras everywhere. In fact, keeping a mentally ill relative locked up at home (with a hired nurse to guard and look after them) used to be regarded as a more humane way of caring for them than submitting them to an asylum, which in the era of ‘Bedlam’ was likely to be a hellhole full of restraining devices and crackpot ‘treatments’, all for public spectacle. The story of Bertha and Grace Poole in the book Jane Eyre is based on this practice, which was common amongst the well-off (poorer people did not have the money or space). This is nowadays in theory illegal, although I have heard of some families doing this, but I do not see how it is any more cruel than keeping someone in a high-security institution hundreds of miles from home for years and not even letting them hug their visiting relatives or talk to them without it being listened in on.

Our system is as barbaric as anyone’s. It’s just that it’s high-tech barbarism.

There is now a fundraising appeal for a new placement for Bethany. The goal is only £1,000 which will not fund a whole new placement on its own but might, for example, contribute towards legal action to improve her situation. You can find it here.

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