Over the last two weeks, mental health care communities have been seemingly bombarded with non-stop stigma. Whether Asda and its poor choice of Halloween costume in the shape of ‘The mentally ill patient’ or Tesco with its equally damaging ‘Psycho-Ward Patient’, mental health communities have spoken out, lambasting the insensitive and damaging stereotypes passed off by consumer-rich supermarkets keen on attracting the young to sample their ever more gory and unique ensembles for the fright-night of the 31st of October.
As the Asda debacle slowly began to simmer, helped by a swift removal of the offensive costume, an apology and a pledge to give a donation to the mental health charity Mind, so another controversy exploded into our consciousness.
The Sun newspaper’s front page this morning read, ‘1,200 killed by mental patients’. This headline comes the day after Philip Simelane, was convicted of the manslaughter of sixteen year old school girl Christina Edkins, at Birmingham Crown court on the grounds of diminished responsibility and detained under the mental health act indefinitely.
Christina was described as a ‘bright, beautiful, caring girl, loved by everyone’ in a family statement issued after the court hearing, whilst the family also spoke of their heartache, “The loss of a child is the worst thing that can ever happen, made even more grievous by such a senseless crime as this”. The killing of a young girl with her whole life ahead of her is a tragedy as is the horror that she must have endured early that morning as she boarded a bus to school.
However and not to be in anyway dismissive of this young girls death, it is important to look at the whole picture of not only what happened that fateful morning but more crucially why.
Philip Simelane, was a twenty-three year old young lad, with a history of severe mental illness, most notably Paranoid Schizophrenia. The police had been called to his home in Wallsall some twenty-one times, and as early as 2005, his mother was repeatedly asking for help for her son and desperately needed assistance.
Instead, Philip like many, came to be known to the police. As recent as July, he was made the subject of a restraining order and charged with offences including threatening his mother. Immediately after his release in October, 2012, he was again charged with another offence and sent back to prison.
Whilst in prison, he apparently received some mental health care, which was being provided by Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, but on his eventual release, no care-plan was in place and with no fixed abode, he was allowed to sleep rough on the streets.
One of the defining comments of recent times and one that is becoming more and more troubling is that ‘lessons need to be learnt’. Obviously, lessons do need to be learned but often those lessons are the same lessons that needed to be learnt on each consecutive occasion previously. Lessons such as the lack of communication between care providers, organisations and professionals, time restraints and workloads on professionals that make carrying out their duties virtually impossible, patchy and inconsistent care services and crucially a lack of funding, no doubt made worse by the current conservative government.
However, even whilst we as a society contemplate these things, and perhaps even try to engage in intelligent conversation and debate – or even as Christina’s family, though obviously understandably grief stricken can see the mistakes that were made that sadly culminated in her death, The Sun Newspaper conversely stepped into troubled territory this morning. With its stigmatising sensationalist headline, slashed across its front page serving as food for thought for beloved red-top readers, its banner hardly seemed to move the debate forward.
Upon reading the article this morning, written by Ryan Parry and Stephen Moyes, not a normal occurrence may I add, I was struck by the fact that the article was actually well balanced and seemed to portray, correctly, the problems with mental health services per se. Problems such as; families crying out for help and support but being ignored or their concerns not being taken seriously, the police and health-care agencies not communicating effectively and, probably the most pertinent currently as noted above, the lack of funding in mental health services.
It included a conversation with Marjorie Wallace of mental health charity Sane, who suggested that “what is truly shocking and disappointing is that the same factors have been identified case after case. The same catalogue of blunders are happening, the same recommendations have been given. And yet the same tragedies are happening”
Additionally, it looks at one of the immediate problems, the slashing of mental health budgets. The sun claims that there were ’87,396 in-patient beds for mental health patients in 1980. By 2011, there were 23,208 overnight beds available in England’. Whilst additionally, Mrs Wallace made the worrying assertion that there was not a single acute bed across England two weeks ago.
Though I may have been pleasantly surprised by the overall coverage of the article, it would be wrong of me to suggest that the Sun got it right on all fronts.
I spent some time analysing the piece of research used by the Sun to obtain its statistics, this research being ‘The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness’. One of the key findings was that ‘Comprehensive figures for homicide and mental illness show that in 2001-2010 an average of 74 patients per year were convicted of homicide in the UK. When people with symptoms of mental illness are added, the total rises to an average of 115 per year. These are perpetrators – the corresponding figure for victims, taking account of multiple homicides, is 122 per year. All these figures appear to be falling. (Lois Appleby et all, p7, 2013)
The Sun’s figures therefore of there being 1,200 victims of homicide are correct, but it has deliberately misinterpreted or conveniently skewed the findings. Only 74 people convicted of homicide per year had been in contact with mental health services within the twelve months prior to conviction and the research does not clarify that these were in fact high-risk patients as the Sun Newspaper asserts, in actual fact it draws no such conclusions as to their mental health diagnosis. 41 people convicted of homicide displayed symptoms of mental illness, as suggested by pre-conviction reports put forward by psychiatrists but again this does not suggest that they were definitely mentally ill prior to the offense or that they were in turn high-risk.
Which brings me to the general theme and underlying message of the article. The Sun has a penchant for sensationalised language and a sublime joy in creating mass hysteria amongst the general population, which was sadly, crudely evident as usual. Whether it was calling those individuals who suffer from mental health difficulties ‘mental patients’ conjuring up negative and incorrect stereotypes of mad, dangerous, incoherent, axe-wielding monsters, froth spilling from their gap-ridden rotten mouths, as they wander precariously around the streets looking for prey – which was juicily expanded upon by the assertion that victims were often killed at random. Whether it is was the delightful overuse of the word ‘Killer’ none more so, than in the strategically placed boxes posited around the outside of the article, highlighting the lives taken by so-called ‘mental patients’. Boxes complete with hysterical captions such as ‘Knifed on Doorstep’ or ‘killed by sword’, set against a smiling picture of the tragic victim and the most disturbing picture of the perpetrator they could find.
The Sun would no doubt claim that it is seeking to educate, in much the same way that the Daily Mail would assert the same. The problem being is that when so called quasi-intelligent debate is underscored by a paranoid, rather neurotic hysteria and a ‘them’ and ‘us’ perspective that serves to marginalise the most vulnerable members of society even further, then the only thing achieved is renewed discrimination, an unreliable uneducated perspective and a reduced understanding of mental illness.
However, another point worth making is that this article is not targeting the mentally ill per se. In fact it is looking specifically at a small minority in society who have committed homicides due to mental health difficulties, which is certainly not the everyday ‘given’ experience of most people suffering from a wide range of mild to severe mental health issues. Of course with any marginalised group, there is going to be a certain reactionary stance to anything deemed to be further discriminatory and as much as it would be natural to fight all further negative rhetoric that forces any group to take ten steps back, it is important to not be blinded by emotional and personal gut-led responses that may well be counter intuitive.
The fact that some people with mental health difficulties can and do commit homicides is a fact, even if it feels unpalatable to many in mental health circles. Though to decide to jump up and down and fight this assertion, even when substantiated by research and to somehow believe it reflects on the everyday person living with mental illness regardless of severity or even that it is suggesting that all people with mental illness are capable of such a crime is not only incorrect but it shows a complete lack of perspective and rather distorted set of comparisons.
Strangely, as arguments continue, as people with mental illnesses fight what they perceive to be more stigma unfairly directed at them or as people with no mental health knowledge or understanding, except that which has been hand gift wrapped by media out-lets, decide that they had better not leave the homes ever again, I find myself feeling slightly incredulous.
The research done by Manchester University was notified by the Home Office, that there were in fact 6,065 homicides during the period of 2001-2011. If we look at the fact that only 74 people each year, were convicted of homicide who had been in touch with mental health services, this equates to only 10% of homicides being caused by someone with a mental illness – or if we are to be controversial, like the Sun Newspaper, and add those who also displayed symptoms, this still only equates to 20% of all homicides where mental health issues may have played a part.
I don’t know about you, but when I open my door, I would be more concerned that I might meet one of the other 80% – 90% of people who have been convicted of homicide, who are apparently of sane body and mind!