'Not Seeing my Child With Autism in Lockdown is Driving Her to Self Harm'

The COVID-19 lockdown has proved difficult for millions of families who cannot see loved ones, but for those with children who suffer from learning disabilities and mental health issues, the lockdown has proved to be particularly difficult.

"The decline in her mental health and the way she is expressing herself, was so rapid, it's unbelievable," Andrea Attree says, who has only seen her daughter Dannielle in a mental health hospital on three occasions since the lockdown came into force on March 23.

Andrea says that Dannielle struggles with her autism and has incredible difficulty sharing how she feels with people, especially strangers, as it takes her time to bond with people.

"She won't talk to people unless she feels confident, so she's expressing herself in other ways," Andrea told Newsweek.

That has included self-harm, even writing messages on walls for staff at her hospital in her own blood, and suicidal thoughts.

"Her self harm is something I've never seen before, the way she's dealing with things, she sees herself as the girl with no face, she's so distressed, she's scratching her face away," Andrea said.

Before the lockdown, Andrea was able to see her daughter, who has been in seclusion since November, at least two times a week, something which Andrea says helped Dannielle improve.

However, once the lockdown came into effect Andrea says she was able to visit her daughter on her birthday only.

Child in mental health hospital
Dannielle has severe autism and has really struggled in the lockdown Andrea Attree

Andrea gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in Parliament, which looked at the issue of young people who had been detained in mental health institutions and who are not able to see their parents during the lockdown.

She told the hearing: "Dannielle suffers with paranoia so she thinks sometimes that I don't want to come or I don't like her.

"It just heightens all those anxieties and then obviously the more anxious she becomes, the more she self-harms and it's just a vicious circle."

Following her appearance, the committee made a number of recommendations, including allowing parents to visit, which its chair Harriet Harman MP said was vital.

"The system shouldn't just treat them like a nuisance, because without parental visits often the young person gets worse and then is more subjected to forcible constraint and solitary confinement and then deteriorates again," Harman said.

Although Andrea is now allowed to visit her daughter once a week, she says she would like to see her more and that there are others in a similar situation to her, including a mother with a 12-year-old son who has not seen him since the middle of March.

"After I gave evidence, the hospital decided they would reinstate my visits, she [Dannielle] is the only person in the whole hospital that's getting visits.

"They're still not letting other people have visits. I don't know how many other autistic patients they have."

Andrea says there are hundreds of other parents in a similar situation to her and who have not seen their children at all.

"I need her to be out of there really, so the issue is resolved to a certain extent," she said.

"I can go once a week that means they have to time to plan, for whoever the staff need to be, that can manage Dannielle when I leave, because obviously it can get traumatic for her, obviously it's still not enough, I'd like to see her more than that."

Andrea says Dannielle is very sensitive about certain things, like who can wash her clothes, which she can no longer do, something that has added to her daughter's anxiety.

She said: "Dannielle is very sensitive with things like washing, I'm not allowed to do her washing anymore, I'm not allowed to take anything for her, unless its prepackaged, and then they clean all the packaging and leave it for three days before she can have it."

Andrea says that her daughter often goes three to four days in the same clothes when she runs out of them.

"There are just so many issues," she said.

"I've never seen this traumatic level of response before."

Following Andrea's appearance before the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the committee made several recommendations, stating that the situation for children and young people in mental health hospitals had become a "severe crisis" because of blanket bans and called for the NHS to instruct mental health hospitals to resume visits.
Andrea says the recommendations will do little to help those in a position like hers.

She said: "Most hospitals are going to say it's not safe to do so, because it's a lot easier for them not to have visits, an awful lot easier.

"Those recommendations are really are just a waste of time, they've got to be enforced."

Andrea says she is determined to shine a light so that others in her position can get help.

She said: "Obviously there are things that need to be done to keep patients, staff and visitors safe, but there's a way around it, all patients can have a visit at the weekend, you can even have allotted times."

Edel Harris, chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap said they supported the calls of the Joint Committee on Human Rights for family contact to be reinstated.

He said: "Over 2,000 people with a learning disability and/or autism continue to be locked away, yet during this crisis, the government and NHS England missed its target to reduce the number locked away for the second year in a row.

"The government and NHS England must not use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse not to fix the root cause of the problem by investing in the right social care and housing in the community to stop the vicious circle of admissions, delayed discharge and re-admissions.

"Yet the social care sector is on its knees as the cost of delivering care soars and emergency funding is not always reaching frontline services. Now more than ever, we need a robust cross-government strategy and investment in a reformed social care system to stop inappropriate admissions in the first place and get people out of inpatient units and back into the community. Lockdown must not mean more people locked up."

The NHS said it has supported visits across all inpatient settings when it is "safe and appropriate to do so".

A spokesperson said: "Our national guidance sent to hospitals and other local health services has always supported visits across all inpatient settings when local organisations agree it is safe and appropriate to do so, and we have stated clearly that there must be no blanket ban."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said that it was determined to reduce the number of people with learning disabilities in mental health hospitals.

A spokesperson said: "We are determined to reduce the number of people with learning disabilities and autism in mental health hospitals. Significant investment in community support has already led to a 29% net reduction since March 2015. And our Long Term Plan will reduce inpatient numbers by 50% by 2023/24 through investment in specialist services and community crisis care in every local area."

"The NHS national guidance sent to hospitals and other local health services has always supported visits across all inpatient settings when it is safe and appropriate, and they have stated clearly that there must be no blanket ban.