How the Mentally Ill Pose a Greater Risk to Themselves Than to Us

[box] Rob Cleaver explains the misreported truths of risks posed by the mentally ill [/box]


We in the 21st century are very much in favour of purging the prejudices that still lurk in the dark back alleys of Britain. We are plodding progressively towards an enlightened world where women are no longer discriminated against and also towards a disability, racially and religiously inclusive society. To these ends, the elimination of stigma towards mental health has been a key agenda on the tongues of many and to some extent we are getting there ñ depression in particular is a more widely understood and acknowledged problem than it was even ten years ago.

However, there are those unpalatable times when the media fire their ceaseless cannon of scaremongering into the British public to once again whip up a debate whose shrapnel was best left in the dark ages of alcoholic anaesthesia and leech therapy.

In the past few weeks, the BBC have reported widely about the 96 people murdered by mentally ill patients since 2005 in London and, as any self-respecting news agency would, thought best to leave out the further evidence regarding the vastly increased rates of suicide amongst the same section of society. The portrait they painted was thus ñ people suffering from a mental health disorder are capable of and will attack someone that you know.

Of course the statistics are publicly available; The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness based at Manchester University concluded that homicide rates were actually decreasing over this period and that the final year that they have concrete data for actually saw the lowest rate since records began in 1997 reflecting only a 9% share of total murder convictions in England. Suicide rates, on the other hand, are on the rise amongst mentally ill patients with numbers up 200 since the previous year which contribute a rather heftier 32.5% of the annual suicide rate in England.

This, regrettably, is not the story that most of the general public will have seen. They will have seen themselves as potential victims at the hands of very vulnerable people who themselves, and even the BBC acknowledge this, are three times more likely to be the victim of a crime than someone without previous mental health contact. It is this kind of publicity that tops up the levels of stigma that are expressed by the lay public, rebuilding the wall that has ostracised so many for so long that previously, brick by brick, had been on its way down.

What most recently riled me about this coverage is that the story on the website now carries the message, this story has been amended in light of new information from the Ministry of Justice, putting the figures into more context. Qualification of the information on the bottom of the web page at a later date will have done very little to right the salaciousness of the initial broadcast because the wood was not seen for the trees. How many will have gone to such lengths as to reread something they read or heard about days ago as they clamber keenly for their daily fix of worldwide miserabilism?

There is no doubt that each individual murder case is a tragedy; no one deserves to be attacked in this way by anyone, mentally ill or not. There is also no doubt though that there are those few who are failed by a vastly underfunded and overly stretched mental health service in the UK who then go on to harm other people. However, with murder rates decreasing it is evident that we surely must be doing something right, a notion of positivity often overlooked by the press, whilst suicide rates are on the increase. Surely the most reportable findings from this inquiry are that mental health trusts are failing to prevent some of the most vulnerable in society from ending their own lives ñ this is where the failure in the system is most apparent.

The disparity between the true picture, that of vulnerability, and the bloodthirsty image that the press has portrayed is highly visible, to me at least. There will always need to be progress in mental health safeguards, support services, frameworks and facilities because we can always try to do better.  However, with negative press from unenlightened, selective statisticians we allow the mentally ill to become invisible once more, drifting back into the shadows of a pre-inclusive and retrogressive society in which danger truly lies.

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