Over-use of mental hospitals for treating children

Author: Adrian O'Dowd

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Too many children with learning disabilities are being placed and left in mental health hospitals, according to Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England.

In a report published today, Ms Longfield said too many children were being admitted to secure hospitals unnecessarily and in some cases, spending months or years of their childhood in institutions when they should be in their community.

The report Far less than they deserve: Children with learning disabilities or autism living in mental health hospitals warns that the current system of support for those with learning disabilities or autism was letting down some of the most vulnerable children.

The children’s commissioner’s office made a series of visits to mental health care hospitals and spoke to children in these units as well as some families of children, while also gathering available official data.

From her investigation, Ms Longfield found that the number of children with a learning disability identified in mental health hospitals was increasing despite government targets to cut the numbers of people with a learning disability or autism in hospital.

Results showed 250 children with a learning disability or autism were identified in a mental health hospital in England in February of this year, compared to 110 in March 2015.

Data provided to the children’s commissioner’s office by NHS Digital showed that, on average, children with autism and/or a learning disability had spent six months living in their current hospital, and eight months in inpatient care in total.

Around one in seven children had spent at least a year in their current hospital spell with their current provider but any could have returned home if support was available.

Nearly a quarter of children had a total length of stay of at least six months and were in a ward at least 50km (31 miles) from home. Around one in 10 children had a total length of stay of at least a year and were in a ward at least 100km (62 miles) from home.

The report also said there was worrying evidence of poor and restrictive practices and sedation, with some children telling the commissioner of how their stay in mental health hospital had been traumatic, and parents had often been left feeling powerless to do anything to intervene.

The children’s commissioner called on ministers to launch a cross-government national strategy with funding and clear targets to ensure the right support was available in every area to stop these children going into hospital.

The strategy should address the values and culture of the wider system across the NHS and local government so admission to hospital or a residential special school was not seen as almost inevitable for some children.

Ms Longfield said: “A national strategy is needed to address the values and culture of the wider system across the NHS, education and local government so that a failure to provide earlier help is unacceptable, and admission to hospital or a residential special school is no longer seen as almost inevitable for some children.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health & Social Care, said: “Autistic children and children with learning disabilities must receive high quality, safe and compassionate care.

“We are determined to reduce the number of autistic people or people with learning disabilities in mental health hospitals - significant investment in community support has already led to a 22% reduction since March 2015.”

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