Among other weighty events on Wednesday, there is a chink of light that could transform the lives of thousands of people with learning disabilities, needlessly stuck in mental health institutions away from homes, families and communities. On Wednesday, the public affairs committee will hear from Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, and others, on reducing the number of people with learning disabilities in mental health hospitals to improve their quality of life. As a psychiatrist, I see many patients parked in hospital wards with years of their lives just rolling past. While the government’s target is to close 1,300 beds by 2019, only 60 beds have been closed so far.
Institutionalisation of this group of people in chaotic and turbulent hospitals for months, often years, on end can be devastating for their wellbeing. Yet this continues. Over 2,500 inpatients with learning disabilities remain in hospital, despite government commitment for them to have “the right to the same opportunities as anyone else to live satisfying and valued lives, and to be treated with dignity and respect … have a home within their community, be able to develop and maintain relationships, and get the support they need to live healthy, safe and rewarding lives”.
Discharging people from hospitals into community care transforms lives. A man, previously on my ward, self-harmed so severely and frequently that he blinded himself. When the right care package could eventually be arranged for his complex needs, he was discharged to residential care. The difference in his behaviour and quality of life is nothing short of breathtaking. Improving the lives of so many like him requires more than empty promises. Further specialist psychiatric input is needed to ensure people with learning disabilities are admitted to hospital only when it is the best place for them to be, and their care regularly reviewed so that they can return to the community as soon as they are ready.
Dr Ashok Roy
Chair of the Intellectual Disability Faculty, Royal College of Psychiatrists
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