Jim Kennedy writes: The Sun’s headline that 1200 people have been killed by ‘mental patients’ has, I think, caused much less of a media storm than it should have. Hence this blog.
I want to start with two things that I think haven’t featured as prominently as they might in the initial responses to the story.
The first is: what are the figures on which the headline is based? As far as I can tell, they must relate to the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness: Annual Report.
That report was published in July, so why the Sun chose Monday (the 7th Oct) to run the story, I have no idea, except, of course, that it may have been intended as their early contribution to World Mental Health day (the 10th).
The Confidential Inquiry report is a complex and detailed one, and as other commentators have suggested, its figures and conclusions need to be carefully considered and fully analysed in any debate about the link between mental ill-health and homicide. But, for the record, the Inquiry press release at the time of publication said:
“The number of people killed by mental health patients has fallen to its lowest level in a decade – figures released today show.
"Experts suggest the fall in homicide reflects safer patient care and point to the possible effect of better treatment of drug and alcohol problems as well as new legal powers in the community.
"But suicides among mental health patients increased with the current economic difficulties a likely factor.”
The second key issue that I think has been underplayed in the responses may simply be because others have thought it too obvious to raise. All refer to the way the story is likely to set back the battle to reduce the stigma faced by people with mental health problems.
But, they generally haven’t noted that the specific use of language in the headline actually strengthens the stereotypical image of people with mental ill health. The words mental patient can either be read to imply a patient who has mental health problems. Or, a patient who is ‘mental’ – that is, mental as an adjective. ‘He’s mental.’
Strangely, I find this, rather than the careless use of the homicide figures, the most disturbing aspect of the story.
The toll on individuals, and taken from mental health services, as a result of the persistent levels of stigma associated with psychiatric disorders is incalculable. Using words that imply (however obliquely) that seeing people as ‘mental’, is par for the course is just horrifying.
And, it comes just a few days after some major retailers were caught describing Halloween costumes in language that clearly showed that that kind of labelling still strikes some people as appropriate, or even funny.
As others have noted, this is all the more telling a point when a key report we featured last week [you will need to be a subscriber to view], has highlighted the evidence that people with mental health problems are, themselves, at significantly increased risk of being the victims of crime – and violent crime in particular.
Having made these points it’s important to note that the Sun’s article apparently tries to use the homicide figures to address the under-resourcing of mental health services. But, the headline is at severe odds with that intention.
For those with more interest in these issues here are a few links to some of the key responses and articles published in the wake of the Sun headline:
This Mental HealthToday news story summarises relevant charity responses.
This blog provides useful debate on and helpfully unpicks some of the figures used by the Sun.
This detailed response by Rethink Mental Illness’s Chief Executive, which provides a concise summary of the arguments against the story.
This BBC news story looks at figures as they relate to London.