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BBC Panorama's Latest Programme Is Set To Inflame Stigma Around Mental Health And Medication

25/07/2017 16:14 BST | Updated 25/07/2017 16:14 BST
Photography by ZhangXun via Getty Images

BBC Panorama is a well known 'investigative' documentary programme which focuses on current affairs. The programme which has been broadcast for over 50 years has had a number of notable investigations including 'Scientology', 'Death In The Med' and 'North Korea Undercover'. The show was even subject to an attempt at censorship by the security services regarding a programme looking into the services in 1981. But the latest programme which is set to air on Wednesday evening is causing concern amongst people living with mental illness as well as campaigners including clinician and government advisor Professor Louis Appleby.

The programme entitled 'A Prescription for Murder?', which, frighteningly, shares its title with a book about Harold Shipman, is asking the question 'Is it possible that a pill prescribed by your doctor can turn you into a killer?'. The information revealed by the BBC so far in a bid to draw viewers in, highlights how in the UK, over 40 million prescriptions for SSRI anti-depressants were given by Doctors in 2016. The programme claims to reveal 'the devastating side effects' experienced by 'a tiny minority' which may lead to 'psychosis, violence, possibly even murder'.

The BBC states they have 'exclusive access' to 'psychiatric reports, court footage and drug company data' in relation to 24-year-old PhD student James Holmes who carried out a mass killing at a midnight movie premiere of Batman in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. Lost? Well, Panorama is asking whether the SSRI anti-depressant he had been prescribed play a part in his heinous mass murder. The programme also claims to have uncovered other cases of murder and extreme violence which could be linked to psychosis developed as a result of taking SSRI medications, 'including a father who strangled his 11-year-old son'.

The final word in the synopsis of Wednesday's programme reads 'Panorama asks if enough is known about this rare side effect and if doctors are unwittingly prescribing what could be a prescription for murder'. It is clear to me that Panorama not only appears to be using cases some 5,000 miles away in the USA to illustrate this theory but are also hell bent on sensationalising an extremely sensitive topic which affects people who are already unsure about medication as a result of stigma, which this very story is likely to inflame and create.

I, personally have taken various medications over the last seven years these have included SSRI's like Sertraline, which is the same medication James Holmes was being prescribed. Is this Panorama programme focusing on the fact that James Holmes was potentially mixing the SSRI with a benzodiazepine which is not advised? No. Is this programme looking at the fact there was forty-eight beer cans and other alcohols were found in his apartment? No. The marketing for the programme, including advertisements in national newspapers this week, has made that crystal clear.

This is approached by BBC Panorama is already going to be having a detrimental effect on, not only the way individuals battling a mental illness, but also the perceptions of their friends, families and people they come into contact with. Given the current information is given on the programme, why wouldn't anyone rule out that because I'm taking a SSRI, I might suddenly murder my family in the middle of the night? Not only is psychosis an extremely rare side effect of various medication, only a tiny percentage of those with a psychotic disorder may threaten violence.

There were 571 homicide cases in the UK last year, an average of 50-70 cases of homicide a year involve people known to have a mental health problem at the time of the murder. The statistics, no how hard you dig, simply does not support the sensationalised media coverage about people with mental health problems being a danger to society. In contrast, The British Crime Survey shows that almost half of victims of violent crimes believed that their offender was under the influence of alcohol and around 17% believed that the offender was under the influence of illegal drugs.

Looking at various sets of data, including side effects recorded by the Government, it is easy to draw the conclusion that those suffering from mental illness pose much more of a threat to themselves via suicide or self-harm than to others by assault or murder and people with a mental illness are far more likely to be a victim of crime than to commit a crime. Panorama, In a bid to defend their upcoming programme claimed on Twitter that, yet to be named, campaigners have said patients require more information on the medications and side effects. Whilst it may be true that more information needs to be made available, there are far more threatening and common side effects that should be highlighted and if possible, without claiming that one of us might turn into a mass murderer overnight.

I strongly believe that, looking at the information made available before the show is aired, that this is a desperate attempt to grasp at audiences with a sensationalised topic that affects almost everyone in some way. To me, it seems like it is yet another case of trying to make sense of complex, rare cases that have resulted in tragedy. But remember, never blame the oh-so-sacred alcohol. Ideally, the show would be pulled and potentially redeveloped but at this time it looks like it will go ahead.