is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
Five children with special educational needs have killed themselves during lockdown in one UK county alone. The end of the school term and disappearance of any residual support will only make this tragic outcome worse.
The latest figures for confirmed coronavirus deaths in the UK show 44,830 people have fallen victim to Covid-19 so far, but it’s the report from just one county of five disabled children killing themselves in the space of just three months that is particularly tough for parents, like me, who have kids with special needs.
It’s a terrible, grim statistic, and while Kent County Council is the only authority to have released the figures for suicide among disabled children, you can bet it has happened elsewhere.
Because since March 23, when schools were shut, the upheaval caused by lockdown was always guaranteed to take a heavy toll on the special needs community.
Many children in this boat, my 18-year-old daughter Elvi included, thrive on carefully constructed routines. In our case, creating that routine has taken years. Countless fails and backward steps finally resulted in a regular timetable that Elvi and her family could all work with.
Then overnight it was blown apart by lockdown. No school, no transport, no therapies, no care, no support. Nothing.
A recent report from the Disabled Children’s Partnership (DCP) shows we’re not alone.
“In 76 percent of cases support has stopped altogether, leaving parents and young siblings taking on all care responsibilities around the clock,” it says.
And the effects have been profound, as the tragic cases in Kent show. Sarah Hammond, the director of integrated children’s services in the county, said two or three child suicides would ordinarily be expected over 12 months.
All five of the victims – three boys and two girls aged 13-17 – had special needs, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which may have made it intensely difficult for them to cope without the routine of school, she said.
The DCP report backs this up with its finding that disabled children’s friendships, learning, communication, behaviour and mental and physical health have all suffered during lockdown.
That is because routines have been abandoned and daily certainties have become a random series of events patched together by desperate parents. Left in limbo, the distress caused by this incomprehensible disruption was certain to lead to tragic outcomes. Even suicide.
The report goes on to say, “Parents already struggling before the pandemic, due to lack of support, feel locked out during lockdown, abandoned by society and fearful for their own physical and mental health.”
This situation is already at a critical level during what would normally be school term time. The outlook is even more terrifying as the summer term concludes this week, with any skeleton support that has been available – through emailed lesson plans, school updates and occasional Zoom chats – vanishing on Friday afternoon, leaving many parents alone with a six-week void and absolutely no support whatsoever.
What do we hear from our politicians or our local authorities about all this? Nothing.
Meanwhile, the money that they are not spending on support workers, transport, therapists, school meals and care must be piling up nicely.
But I get it. Before I had a disabled child myself, I didn’t know any parents who had offspring with profound or multiple learning difficulties. They simply weren’t on my radar. So I understand how, to most people, we are invisible. How can you care if you’re not aware?
We don’t march up Whitehall in noisy protests or topple statues. Maybe we should.
When public sympathy has such a massive call on it from daily dreadful stories of heroic people and loved ones dying as a result of the killer Covid-19, there simply isn’t the emotional bandwidth available to take on board the struggle of some other family who you don’t know.
What with trying to work from home, ensuring bored kids do some schoolwork and coping with the unusual demands of the new normal, many parents are content to just get by without losing the plot completely, collapsing on the sofa with a drink at the end of the day, ready for the new battles of tomorrow.
For those with disabled children, this awful, unhealthy lockdown life is made even harder by the intense demands for care, attention and routine that are fundamental to the mental and physical wellbeing of their offspring.
Because if we drop the ball here, it’s not simply coronavirus we have to worry about. It’s something no parent should ever have to fear: a child so upset, so distressed and disoriented by the lack of routine that they take their own life.
The impact of that, frankly, would be too much to bear.