by Mollie Heywood
Assessment and treatment units (ATUs) were designed to offer short-term crisis interventions for people with learning disabilities and autism. The intention was to offer problem-solving support for bigger issues or short-term respite care.
However, research published this week by the Centre for Disability Research for the 7 Days of Action campaign shows that these ATUs are no longer short-term stopgaps. Instead, people are being forced to stay in these units for far longer than necessary and, in some cases, kept hundreds of miles away from their families and homes.
Why? According to an NHS report, one of the top five reasons people are admitted to a unit is because no community-based assessment and treatment services are available in their areas. Meanwhile a reason commonly given for admitting someone to a unit is that their “challenging” behaviour or a mental health issue has flared up.
It seems obvious to me that moving someone away from their home, their family and known environments won’t do anything to help reduce challenging behaviour or improve mental health. So being sent hundreds of miles away means a person will potentially spend even longer in an ATU that they should never have been sent to in the first place.
Another worrying point raised by the 7 Days of Action research is the suggestion that the NHS’s contracting of private sector-run ATUs means profits are being valued over people. The report found a person who has been in a private unit for five years roughly produces £950,000 of income for the independent sector. Last year, there were over 1,290 people in these services.
The report concluded: “It is clear to us that the way in which the healthcare economy has been encouraged to develop by recent governments turns people into commodities and liabilities.”
How can it be right that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people treated this way? A friend of a friend is about to be moved hundreds of miles away from their home to an ATU for a minimum of two years, moving from an NHS unit to a private one.
They’ll be losing the social networks and relationships they desperately rely on, including visits from friends and family members, and, put simply, the knowledge that they’re in an area that they know and are comfortable in.
Online, private ATUs look like flashy, appealing prospects. Pictures show facilities that look like show homes or university halls. The reality can be very different. A 2012 report highlighted in the research found patients in the independent sector were 30% more likely to experience an assault and 60% more likely to be restrained than inpatients in NHS units.
Having studied the 7 Days of Action research and read many of the observations online of the descriptions of real peoples’ experiences, I just keep coming back to the same conclusions. I’m horrified and shocked that vulnerable people are being exploited, seemingly within the law, while profits are padded out.
I’m currently completing an MA in social work. One of the things that troubles me is where our profession fits into the ATU issue. The way they are used seems to defy so many of the principles that underpin social work. Yet social workers must be involved in the lives of many of the people sent to live in these units, whether it be in the referral or management of the placement.
It’s time our profession stood up against this scandal and fought to ensure community alternatives are available. Simply continuing to let the use of these ATUs continue goes against everything we should stand for.
Mollie Heywood is a social work masters student at Lancaster University. She tweets @mollieaheywood.