A national cross-departmental strategy for acquired brain injury is long overdue
MPs must be getting very bored with me. “No, no”, I don’t hear you cry. Whatever question session it is, whether it’s defence, justice, education, treasury or an urgent question on Covid, I raise the issue of acquired brain injury.
It’s a sort of obsession. It’s born of my concern for so many Welsh rugby players, who over the years suffered concussion after concussion and only now understand that their depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and dementia spring from those repeated injuries.
I also care about it because I had a relative, a lovely second cousin, who had a stroke and fell down a flight of stairs. It left her trapped inside her own brain, and she would repeatedly hit herself on the head saying “MD, MD, MD”, which was an old pejorative now thank goodness no longer used Scottish term, “mentally deficient”.
I raise it in every session because it affects nearly every department of government. Children from poorer backgrounds are four times more likely to suffer a significant brain injury before the fifth birthday and children from wealthy backgrounds. Nearly two thirds of all women prisoners have had a significant brain injury before they arrive in jail, and two thirds of those injuries were committed by a domestic partner.
Acquired brain injury is a leading cause of death and disability, affecting over 1.3 million people and costing £15 billion to the UK economy each year. It is an issue for the Departments of Health and Social Care; Work and Pensions; Education; and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; and the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Housing Communities and Local Government.
Individuals and families frequently reach crisis point before they are helped
That is why a national cross-departmental strategy for acquired brain injury is long overdue and why I have introduced the Acquired Brain Injury Bill, which (if the government doesn’t decide to talk out the Bill before it) will be debated in the House on Friday 3rd December.
Shockingly, the government doesn’t have a strategy for acquired brain injury. It says it wants to have one. It says it’s thinking of having one. But at the moment, not even the Department for Health and Social Care has an acquired brain injury strategy. I and others have been banging on about this for years. It’s not a big Bill. It doesn’t demand lots of expenditure. But just like Cheryl Gillan’s Autism Act 2008, my Bill simply requires the government to draw up a strategy, publish it and review it. And just like Cheryl Gillan’s Autism Act 2008, I’m sure it would make a dramatic difference to the provision of services for those affected.
So, my strategy is just to have a strategy. It would be a strategic error for the government to prevent the Bill from going through. Letting it go through and encouraging it to go through would mean that health ministers would be able to command the support of other departments, they would be able to coordinate support, give people back a quality of life, and save money for the taxpayer.
There are so many complex associated issues. People who have suffered a mild/moderate brain injury are often discharged very quickly once their physical symptoms are under control. The debilitating cognitive effects are often hard to spot.
Work, school, family relationships and day to day life are often a huge struggle. Some children who have suffered a brain injury get support immediately afterwards, but find the real problems come six months or a year later. Suddenly intense fatigue overtakes them and teachers and other pupils are less understanding. The child may be accused of being lazy or uncooperative, whereas in fact they’re just suffering neurocognitive stall. The real danger is they’ll end up being excluded and falling into the criminal justice system. Individuals and families frequently reach crisis point before they are helped. They may find themselves unable to complete their education, suffer mental health problems and become homeless or unemployed.
I visited Downing Street last week with the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum, Headway, The Disabilities Trust, The Children's Trust and The Child Brain Injury Trust with a delegation of cross-party MPs to hand in a letter urging the Prime Minister to support the Bill – signed by over 200 parliamentarians, charities, brain injury organisations and individuals. It is critical we get a strategy in place otherwise there will be thousands of people left behind in our constituencies.
If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this article, it is that we need a strategy to join up the dots, to make sure people get the support they need, to enable government departments to work together, and to give people with a brain injury back the quality of life they so richly deserve.
Chris Bryant is the Labour MP for Rhondda.
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