Category Archives: Abuse

‘People with learning disabilities must be put at the centre of their care’

Sheila Hollins with her son, Nigel, who is now a Beyond Words adviser and runs one of the Surrey book clubs. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

I just did a Guardian interview with Sheila Hollins. The crossbench peer is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on learning disability and mental health but the says her greatest achievement is founding Beyond Words, a pioneering not-for-profit organisation that produces picture books to help people with communication issues. “Beyond Words is what I feel most passionate about because it’s about transforming people’s lives,” she says.

Its origins lie in Hollins’ use of pictures to interact with her son, Nigel, who has a learning disability. “He would roar with laughter at Laurel and Hardy [silent] films but didn’t put a word together till he was eight.” When Nigel was nervous about an adventure holiday, his parents drew pictures depicting activities like abseiling: “When we put things into pictures, he felt more in control.”

Thirty years on, Beyond Words has distributed or sold 100,000 copies of its 57 titles, which cover everything from relationships to surviving abuse. Each title involves 100 learning disabled people as advisers or authors. There are 60 associated book clubs with 350-400 members.

Nigel Hollins, now 47, is a Beyond Words adviser and runs one of the Surrey book clubs. He lives independently in a flat near his family with support from a personal assistant. His mother says: “People see Nigel in the shops, cafe or train station. He has a life in the community.”

Read the full interview in the Guardian

Reports and reviews on repeat

The government’s care watchdog the Care Quality Commission, published an interim report today into the treatment of people wiht learning disabilities and/or autism.

The report calls for a review of how adults, children and young people are locked up, segregated, restrained, far from home (that’s right – a report calling for another report..and today’s publication is just the interim report).

The health secretary’s response is that such cases will be reviewed – so, another report then.

Rather than write another report on this, here are a few headlines from recent pieces I’ve worked on with families and campaigners that tell you all you need to know:

Abuse of learning disabled people won’t stop until we all matter equally

You can’t rehabilitate someone into society when they’re locked away

[eight] years on from Winterbourne, why has nothing changed?

Why is it OK for politicians to ignore people with learning disabilities?

We must stop learning disabled people being dumped in waste bins of life

Why did Connor Sparrowhawk die in a specialist NHS unit?

And on that last question by the way, the campaign #JusticeforLB fought for the answer.

Tomorrow, the BBC will broadcast an expose by Panorama on abuse of people with learning disabilities and autism in secure hospitals.

There is now such a huge amount of evidence going back decades – from media to official goverment reports – about what’s wrong with how our health and social care services support learning disabled and autistic people. And a ton more on what needs to happen.


On Twitter today, #notcomplicated was a popular hashtag among campaigners, showing what’s possible in terms of supporting people well and upholding their human rights. So if I was about to get involved in the next report, review, investigation, guidance, consultation document, toolkit, standard, benchmark, framework or remit for a ‘working group’ (list goes on..) in this area, I’d start right there.

*This post is based on my short Twitter thread earlier today

Institutions – in all but name

I love the photo, above, of Jamie Newcombe, taken by Martin Godwin for an article in the Guardian today.

Jamie, who has a learning disability, was once in a series of restrictive inpatient care units, including a stint in so-called “locked rehab” where he ended up with a broken arm (you can read more on his experience here).

Today. Jamie is proof that people can thrive if supported in the right way.

The government’s long-stated ambition is to move the majority of learning disabled and autistic people from inpatient institutions like assessment and treatment units (ATUs) into community-based housing. This has been the goal of its transforming care programme, due to end in March (and actually care in the community has been the goal of successive governments for decades..).

Transforming care was launched after the 2011 Winterbourne View abuse scandal exposed the reality of ATUs. The aim was to move all inpatients into community-based housing within three years. That target was missed and progress on moving people from ATUs has been slow.

Transforming care is ending soon but there are still 2,350 people in ATUs and there appears to be no replacement for the national programme. Instead, last week’s NHS long-term plan included a new target (by 2023-24) to reduce the numbers in ATUs by half compared to 2015 levels (when there were around 3,000 people in such units).

Campaigners have drawn attention to the fact that this new target essentially extends the original one.

Inpatient conditions for learning disabled people are also in the spotlight with a forthcoming government-commissioned review into restrictive approaches to learning disability care. In addition, similar issues are the focus of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has recently been examining conditions in learning disability units.

As ATUs rightly fall out of favour, campaigners fear more people will be discharged from them into care that could be equally restrictive, like the sort of locked rehab unit that Jamie was in.

Jayne Knight has visited several locked rehab settings. Knight is an independent family advocate and founder of You Know, which helps people find community housing and care. She describes these “institutions in the community”: “There can be systems of going through one locked door after another. In some places, you are asked what is in your bag and it’s checked, people can still be restrained physically on the floor in their own homes.”

Knight recalls one six-bed facility for autistic people behind a padlocked gate at the end of a residential road, with two staff supervising each resident. She adds: “The number of people was overwhelming. There were narrow hallways and small rooms…It was noisy and the atmosphere didn’t feel calm. People shared bathrooms and so a very strict rota and timetable was in place to enable this.”

The rush to move people from ATUs is likely to have negative consequences, says Steph Thompson, managing director of Waymarks, a voluntary sector organisation supporting people from hospitals into communities. Thompson says: “Pressure to meet discharge targets is highly likely to have two unintended consequences. One, is putting people at risk through unplanned discharges into the community. The other, is step down or across into another ‘bed’. Both routes achieve the discharge target but neither is good for the person.” She adds: “If you have a performance target to meet as a commissioner and an agreed discharge date, it can feel safer to move someone into a ready built unit with a vacancy, health professionals and potentially a lock on the door. It fixes the figures. But it’s not transforming care.” 

Another risk, says Lib Dem MP and former health minister Norman Lamb, is the revolving door of discharge and readmission: “There is a massive risk at the moment driven by the nervous pursuit of a target and a recognition that they have left it too late and if you rush to hit the target with time running out then the risk is you cut corners, you can discharge people unsafely potentially with the risk of them being readmitted or you discharge them to inappropriate or unacceptable settings that don’t actually enhance their quality of life.”

Meanwhile, National figures on planned discharges reveal a marked rise in people moving from ATUs to “other” settings; from 160 transfers in March 2016 to 465 in October 2018 – that’s 20% of all 2,350 people. NHS Digital, which collates the statistics, does not collect information on what “other” settings constitute or on locked rehab or discharges into private placement.

Chris Hatton, Lancaster University professor of public health and disability, says: “It’s hard to know where people are going, what these ‘other’ places actually are, and whether people being moved notice any difference from ATUs…without transparency, it’s possible to game the statistics to make the ‘transforming care’ numbers look good while consigning people to invisibility in places that feel very similar to inpatient units.”

The ultimate answer, says Gary Bourlet, co-founder of campaigning organisation Learning Disability England, is that people need decent jobs alongside good quality community housing “but there’s no national mandate for driving this forward.”

  • Read the full story in today’s Guardian

How a national scandal goes unnoticed

Tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of an event that reflects an enduring national scandal. A long-running scandal that doesn’t trigger public or political outrage.

I’ve written an opinion piece for the Guardian about this today.

On May 31 2011 BBC’s Panorama exposed the abuse of people with learning disabilities at the NHS-funded Winterbourne View assessment and treatment unit (ATU) in Gloucestershire.

There are around 1.5m learning disabled people in the UK, including my sister, Raana. But the general disinterest in learning disability means that tomorrow’s anniversary will not trouble the national consciousness.

Rewind to 2011, and Winterbourne View seemed like a watershed moment. The promise that lessons would be learned was reflected in the government’s official report [pdf], and in its commitment to transfer the 3,500 people in similar institutions across England to community-based care by June 2014. Yet the deadline was missed, and the programme described by the then care minister Norman Lamb, as an “abject failure”.

Since then, various reports and programmes have aimed to prevent another Winterbourne View. These include NHS England’s “transforming care” agenda, which developed new care reviews aimed at reducing ATU admissions.

Yet despite welcome intentions, government figures [pdf] for the end of April 2018 reveal that 2,370 learning disabled or autistic people are still in such hospitals. While 130 people were discharged in April, 105 people were admitted.

This month, an NHS investigation reflected how poor care contributes to the deaths of learning disabled people. It found that 28% die before they reach 50, compared to 5% of the general population.
Unusually, this “world first” report commissioned by NHS England and carried out by Bristol University came without a launch, advance briefing or official comment. It was released on local election results day ahead of a bank holiday. Just before shadow social care minister Barbara Keeley asked in the Commons for a government statement about the report, health secretary Jeremy Hunt left the chamber.

The most recent report was partly a response to the preventable death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk at a Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust ATU. The Justice for LB (“Laughing Boy” was a nickname) campaign fought relentlessly for accountability, sparking an inquiry into how Southern Health failed to properly investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 patients with learning disabilities or mental health problems. The trust was eventually fined a record £2m following the deaths of Sparrowhawk and another patient, Teresa Colvin.

Recently, other families whose learning disabled relatives have died in state-funded care have launched campaigns, the families of Richard Handley, Danny Tozer and Oliver McGowan to name just three. Andy McCulloch, whose autistic daughter Colette McCulloch died in an NHS-funded private care home in 2016, has said of the Justice for Col campaign: “This is not just for Colette… we’ve come across so many other cases, so many people who’ve lost children, lost relatives”. Typically, the McCullochs are simultaneously fighting and grieving, and forced to crowdfund for legal representation (families do not get legal aid for inquests).

To understand the rinse and repeat cycle means looking further back than 2011’s Winterbourne View. Next year will be 50 years since the 1969 Ely Hospital scandal. In 1981, the documentary Silent Minority exposed the inhumane treatment of people at long-stay hospitals, prompting the then government to, “move many of the residents into group homes”. Sound familiar? These are just two historic examples.

If there is a tipping point, it is thanks to learning disabled campaigners, families, and a handful of supportive human rights lawyers, MPs and social care providers. Grassroots campaigns such as I Am Challenging Behaviour and Rightful Lives are among those shining a light on injustice. Care provider-led campaigns include Certitude’s Treat Me Right, Dimensions’ My GP and Me, Mencap’s Treat Me Well.

Pause for a moment to acknowledge our modern world’s ageing population and rising life expectancy. Now consider the parallel universe of learning disabled people. Here, people get poorer care. Consequently, some die earlier than they should. And their preventable deaths aren’t properly investigated.
You can read the full article here.

Homes, hospitals, ambition and actuality

Claire Dyer's family campaigned for her release from an inpatient unit 250 miles away (photo: Cath Dyer)
Claire Dyer’s family campaigned for her release from an inpatient unit 250 miles away. Claire features in today’s Guardian piece (thanks to Cath Dyer for the photo of Claire, who loves both music and Christmas)
Four years after the abuse of people with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View (and 30 years after the start of care in the community and 20 years after the influential Mansell Report), NHS England recently unveiled a £45m plan to move people out of institutional care and back into communities. “Homes not hospitals”, is the laudable vision.

This is where grand ambition contrasts with grim actuality, as I explain in a piece in today’s Guardian.

A report leaked to the BBC and sparked by the preventable death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk in a Southern Health Trust inpatient unit, revealed that the trust failed to investigate some 1,000 deaths in its care over a four year period.

Then yesterday, the Learning Disability Census Report 2015 from the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed there 3,000 people in inpatient units – 3,500 if you count those “unreported” in the figures (more on this here from Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, and the HSCIC explains the discrepancy under its editors’ note number eight here).

Déjà vu? In 2013, according to the HSCIC, there were also around 3,000 people in inpatient units (in fact half those in units today, were also there for the 2013 headcount). And a previous £2.86m government-funded improvement programme from the Local Government Association and NHS England tried but failed to move everyone out of such units by 1 June 2014.

The census, established in response to the abuse at Winterbourne View, also shows the average length of patients’ stay is five years, there is heavy use of antipsychotic medication (almost three-quarters of people – despite the fact that less than a third have a diagnosed psychotic disorder) and more than half self-harm, have accidents or suffer assault, restraint or seclusion. Around a fifth of all inpatients are at least 100km from home.

Reading these stark facts would lead most of us to conclude that if you have a learning disability, you’re less likely to be cared for properly in life, unlikely to have your premature death investigated thoroughly – but if you’re lucky, you might be included in a census (depending on the data collection methodology etc etc).

I’m more pragmatic than negative. My sister, Raana, who has a learning disability, leads a busy, active life where her choice is central to her daily life. There are many organisations out there doing great stuff. I’ve met people who have moved from institutions into supported housing in towns and cities, with the help of truly brilliant, hardworking care staff. I’ve spoken to families who feel involved in shaping the care of their son, daughter or sibling, some with very complex needs. I’ve read – and written – reports outlining good practice in ensuring people get out of these places. While there’s still a postcode lottery at play, “we know what good looks like”, as stressed by many social care experts I speak to.

So as I began writing today’s Guardian piece, I’d expected a narrative of cautious optimism. As I came to finishing it, the Mazars report was leaked and new figures showed little change in the number of people in inpatient units, hence the headline above this post.

The report into Southern Health by auditors Mazars – which as I write, is still not published, despite making headlines and being debated in parliament – has renewed concerns over institutional disablism, led to calls for a national inquiry and, as this piece by Andy McNicoll underlines, provoked widespread criticism over the response of the trust and its chief executive (for links to some powerful blogging and commentary, search Twitter for #mazars or #JusticeforLB).

Katherine Runswick-Cole, senior research fellow at Manchester Metroplitan University’s research institute for health and social change, suggests that until the dehumanisation of people with learning disabilities ends, inadequate care – irrespective of care setting – may linger (related issues include, for example, a hospital listing a patient’s learning disability among reasons for sticking a “do not resuscitate” order on his file).

Recent cases in supported living and residential care – non-institutional environments – reflect this concern.

In January, Thomas Rawnsley’s family will attend a pre-inquest meeting into his death. The 20-year-old, who had Down’s syndrome and autism, was taken to hospital from a residential care home in Sheffield earlier this year, but died two days later.

His mother, Paula, says: “Thomas had great empathy and compassion, he always wanted to make people laugh. If people had taken time to get to know him they would’ve found that out.”

Robin Kitt Callender, a care home resident who was severely autistic and partially sighted, with communication difficulties, died on 23 May 2012, less than 24 hours after finally being admitted to hospital. An inquest in March ruled that she died from natural causes contributed to by neglect, with failings by her GP and hospital staff. Robin’s sister Karen has since launched the Casualties of Care campaign for better rights for people and families.

Dismissive attitudes towards people with learning disabilities extend to their families. As Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, has said, the Mazars report only came about “because of the tireless fight for the truth by the family of Connor Sparrowhawk”.

Meanwhile, back with the grand vision – well meaning and welcome as it is – NHS England says it is working closely with regulator the Care Quality Commission to prevent any new assessment and treatment institutions from being created. But in yet more ambition vs. actuality, the Public Accounts Committee has just criticised the CQC for being ineffective.

Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother Sara Ryan, a senior researcher and autism specialist at Oxford University’s Nuffield department of primary care health sciences, says that the Mazars report “confirms that learning disabled people don’t count in life or death” (see more on this on Sara’s blog). And this post by Chris Hatton suggests some “required reading for anyone wanting to understand the issues involved in premature deaths of people with learning disabilities”.

Hard to disagree with the conclusion of Katherine Runswick-Cole who said when I interviewed her, “the pattern is abuse, inquiry, report, repeat”.

Poor care for people with learning disabilities

Robin Kitt Callender who died after missed opportunities to save her life (pic: Callender family)
Robin Kitt Callender who died after missed opportunities to save her life (pic: Callender family)

By the time Robin Kitt Callender died, she had endured eight weeks of intermittent vomiting and diarrhoea, and her weight had fallen to five stone. In the four months before she collapsed at her Essex care home, the 53-year-old had visited her GP six times and A&E twice, but her inflammatory bowel disease remained undiagnosed.

Callender, who was severely autistic and partially sighted, with communication difficulties, died on 23 May 2012, less than 24 hours after finally being admitted to hospital.

An inquest last week concluded that she died from natural causes contributed to by neglect, with failings by her GP and hospital staff and missed opportunities to save her. Care home staff took her to the doctor, but failed to tell her sister (who usually accompanied her to medical appointments) of the severe symptoms until the day before she died.

There are 1,200 avoidable deaths of learning-disabled people in the NHS every year, according to Mencap’s research into “death by indifference”. A government-commissioned confidential inquiry into the premature deaths of people with a learning disability found that, on average, people die 16 years sooner than in the general population, with many deaths avoidable.

Among the families seeking answers and lobbying for change is that of Connor Sparrowhawk. Two years ago this month, the 18-year-old, who had a learning disability and epilepsy, was admitted to a specialist NHS inpatient unit in Oxford and drowned in the bath less than four months later. His preventable death led to the Justice for LB campaign and an inquest is due this summer.

The circumstances in the cases of Sparrowhawk and Callender are very different, but the principle is the same: people with a learning disability are dying because they do not receive the same quality of care as other people.

There’s more of my piece in The Guardian.

The hidden victims of domestic violence

Beverley Lewis House is the only refuge in the UK that caters for women who have learning disabilities. Photograph: Beverley Lewis House
Beverley Lewis House is the only refuge in the UK that caters for women who have learning disabilities. Photograph: Beverley Lewis House

Barbara Davis’s abusive boyfriend burned her fingers on the stove when he discovered her packed suitcase under the bed and realised she was trying to leave. He had controlled Davis, 36, who has a mild learning disability, for years. He isolated her from family and friends, verbally abusing her parents until they stopped visiting. He locked her in the privately rented London flat they shared, goading her to kill herself. She recalls: “He told me to strangle myself with a wire … he wanted me to die.”

Davis (who eventually escaped) told her story to researchers from the Tizard Centre as part of a project to explores the experiences women with learning disabilities who suffer domestic violence. The work, which also looks at the attitudes and practices of professionals who support such women, is featured in my Guardian piece.

There are some shocking – although perhaps not surprising (given the low profile of learning disability as an issue) – facts included in the piece. Among them, that the UK has just one specialist domestic violence refuge for women with learning disabilities. What’s more, most police officers (often the first point of contact in a domestic abuse incident) do not believe that a learning disability makes women more vulnerable to domestic violence.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

The Tizard Centre project can be accessed here and information on Beverley Lewis House here.

Exhibition reveals hidden history of learning disability

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All images copyright Jürgen Schadeberg

Powerful and rarely seen archive images of life in institutional care form part of a new exhibition that opens today.

The history of long-stay hospitals in Wales is the focus of Mencap Cymru’s Hidden Now Heard project that documents life for people with learning disabilities in the region.

The striking shots of the long-since closed institutions include rarely seen images of Hensol Hospital, Vale of Glamorgan, taken by renowned photographer Jürgen Schadeberg in 1967.

Schadeberg’s Welsh photographs range from the surprising to the thought-provoking and the unsettling. They focus on individual faces and personalities at a time when people with learning disabilities were invisible, herded into high-walled hospitals, hidden away for years.

The images hint at stark reality of life in long-term care, reflecting some of the isolation and inactivity that were its hallmarks. They show patients in workshops and in and around the hospital grounds. However, the photographs also depict some of the positive bonds between staff and children in their care.

Hensol Castle Hospital

Hensol Castle Hospital

Hensol opened in 1930 as a “colony” for the care of 100 male “mental defectives” (standard terminology at the time) with buildings added to raise numbers 460 male, female and child patients in 1935. The move towards community care meant that patient numbers eventually reduced and the institution closed in 2003. Some of the buildings are now luxury flats.

The project provokes the public to consider how we care for and treat people with learning disabilities today.

While life in the community is meant to have replaced segregation in institutions, some 2,600 people with learning disabilities or autism are stuck in the kind of units meant to be consigned to the history books. These include assessment and treatment centres run by the NHS and private companies, like the Winterbourne View unit. The preventable death of Connor Sparrowhawk (aka Laughing Boy or LB) in one of these “waste bins of life” sparked the Justice for LB campaign and the LB Bill, demanding more rights for people with disabilities and their families.

The exhibition, which runs until March at Swansea Museum, is based on oral history testimonies from people who lived in hospitals, their relatives and staff, and is run by and funded by the Heritage Lottery. All the stories from across the region will eventually be deposited in the archive at St Fagan’s, the Museum of Welsh Life.

Phyllis Jones, a patient at Hensol for over 40 years, said of her involvement in the project: “I wanted to tell everyone about Hensol, the good times and bad. They had good staff there but overall I didn’t like living there. I prefer living in my own house”.

Mencap Cymru, which has was involved in helping close many of the area’s hospitals, spent three years researching the project. It wants to record and acknowledge the stories and experiences of former patients and offer people a chance to talk about the past.

Mencap Cymru director Wayne Crocker said of the exhibition: “I very much hope that those who visit will be impressed by the stories they see but more importantly will see the amazing contributions people with a learning disability make to our communities in Wales.”

Anyone recognising the people in the photos or who have stories to tell should contact Mencap Cymru.

You can find out more on Twitter @hiddennowheard or visit the Facebook page.

Groundbreaking digital project to tackle domestic violence

With today the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I was interested to hear of a scheme from the States that aims to help abused women find support online within seconds.

The web is full of information about domestic violence, but searching for local, reliable and relevant services often means trawling through and weeding out old information and advert-laden sites.

The recently launched American resource Domestic Shelters seeks to put that right. “Aggregating an ocean of information into a single place” is how project leaders refer to the scheme.

The newly launched project, a partnership between the American National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and charity Theresa’s Fund, says it is the first and largest fully searchable directory of domestic violence projects in the US, and includes around 3,000 places for women to find help quickly and easily.

Users enter their location, language and service preferences (emergency shelter, for example, or advice), and at a click, can find the nearest, most appropriate support. Recognising the fact that people increasingly use phones and tablets to conduct searches website is optimised for such devices.

I don’t know enough about the American support system to comment on the quality of resources people find via the new website, nor their accessibility, but the project got my interest as it comes at a time when domestic violence refuges in the UK are at crisis point.

One in four women (and one in six men) in the UK will be a victim of domestic violence during their lifetime, according to research. Two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

This is what one domestic violence campaigner and writer, Sarafina Bianco, has said about the project: “If this site had been around while I was searching for help, I probably could have started my healing journey much sooner.”

She adds: “When I was preparing to leave my abuser, I did not know there were non-profits working to support survivors of domestic abuse, so I secretly planned by myself, hoping my logic would surface at a time when I was truly panicking and in a traumatic state. That was five years ago. Even after leaving and finding out there were resources, it took several Google searches to find the local non-profits in my area.

“Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, if it was difficult for me to find them after leaving, how someone still in their abusive relationship could find them without getting caught…Domesticshelters.org streamlines a very important process for any person, at any point in their recovery, to find the nearest service providers who will help them begin thriving in society once more.”

While the project only launched a couple of months ago, you can see how its benefit may go beyond the immediate goal of signposting to the right support; in time, depending on how its search terms and traffic are analysed and the results shared, it might shed some light on the kinds of services the country needs more of.

Why did the Salvation Army fail to act on my claims of sexual abuse?

A woman who complained 16 years ago of being abused by charity personnel in the 1970s now wants an inquiry:

The Salvation Army failed to investigate allegations of historical child abuse, according to a woman who told the charity 16 years ago that four of its members had sexually assaulted her in the 1970s.

In 1998, Lucy Taylor (not her real name) told the Salvation Army that four men at her local branch of the charity in the north of England had abused her. Her story suggests she was groomed from the age of 10, assaulted from 12 years old and the abuse continued for eight years until she left the organisation.

Taylor says her complaints were not handled seriously either at the local branch, known as a “citadel”, which was at the centre of her allegations, or at the national headquarters in London. When she later approached police, an investigation resulted in two of the four men being arrested on suspicion of indecent assault. They were later released without charge. For legal reasons the Guardian cannot name the alleged victim, now in her 50s, or the men.

Taylor says: “I want somebody to take me seriously – listen to my problem and help me sort this out”. She adds of her alleged abusers: “I just want them to realise what they’ve done to me [but] part of me doesn’t, part of me doesn’t want them to know how it’s upset me and ruined my life.” Read the rest of my interview and report on the Guardian website.