Monsters in the Media: Mental Health Patients Are Often the Hunted, not the Hunters

10/10/2013 11:16 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

The Sun newspaper showed no signs of changing its relentless ignorance this week as it stormed straight into the spotlight just a few days before World Mental Health Day with the blaring headline '1200 killed by mental patients.' The figures glared angrily out of newsagents' windows across the UK; emanating burning stigma and shame for those afflicted with mental health conditions.

It expressed exactly the attitudes that initiatives like Time to Change and Rethink Mental Illness have been seeking to change; the notion that people with mental health problems are somehow dangerous and alien to the rest of the human race. In fact, one in four people in the UK suffer with a mental health condition and many bear their struggles silently; they are so intent on hiding it for fear of discrimination you may not even know they are suffering.

The sensationalist, irresponsible and inflammatory headline detracted from the value of the story contained within the Sun's pages which was actually a call for improved mental health services and a more unified approach to mental health support. The first few lines of the article claim that it is 'failings in Britain's mental health systems' which have allowed 'high risk patients' to 'kill 1200 people in a decade.' However, the figures used in the main article are just as misleading and misinterpreted as the headline itself. The Sun apparently obtained its figures from the annual report on homicide and suicide in people with mental illness produced by the University of Manchester.

One of the first things mentioned in the key findings section of the report is how the rate of homicides amongst mental health patients is at the lowest rate ever since the beginning of the record (1997). Thus, the Sun's claims that the mental health system is failing patients and releasing them onto the streets were they commit violent crimes is unfounded; something must be going right if figures are down from 163 homicide victims in 2004 to 76 in 2010 (homicide victims of crimes committed by individuals with mental health problems). Admittedly, the system is not perfect and many people with mental health issues do still slip through the net but in terms of crime rates in the mentally ill population, things are getting better, not worse.

In addition, the total figure of '1200 killed mental patients' that the Sun quotes actually refers to the homicide victims of two separate groups of perpetrators; one group of patients who had previously been in contact with mental health services and another which hadn't been in contact but were considered to be in an abnormal mental state when they committed the homicide. Their absence of prior contact with mental health services means that it is inaccurate to refer to them as 'patients' and it is unlikely that mental health services could have done anything to prevent their crimes. When we only include patients who had prior contact with mental health services, the number of homicide victims falls to 738 over a 10 year period. The authors of the report have already taken to twitter to express their indignation and Professor Louis Appleby has stated that his work has been 'misquoted' and confirmed that '@ProfLAppleby: Figures for homicide by m/health patients make uncomfortable reading but all figs are down substantially since 2004-6 peak. See @NCISH_UK'.

The managing editor of the Sun, Stephen Abell argued that the aim of the report was to raise awareness of the need for improvements to current mental health services and they asked for the CEO of Mind, Paul Farmer to have an input on the article. However, this doesn't get around the problem that the headline is the only part of the article most people will see, and instead of achieving any positive outcome for sufferers, it has only added to the stigma that people with mental health problems experience on a daily basis. For example, recent results of an NHS Survey revealed that "1 in 10 people said "it is frightening to think of people with mental problems living in residential neighbourhoods". But where does this untold fear come from and what is the reality of crime rates in people with mental health problems?

Unlike the dangerous beings the Sun made them out to be, people with mental health problems are actually three times more likely to be the victims of violent crime, rather than the perpetrators. This figure is likely to be even higher for women with severe mental illness who may be up to 10 times more likely to be victims of assault compared to the rest of the population. These figures were released on the BBC website literally hours before The Sun came crashing in. They were the result of a three year study involving three London universities and two large national charities; Mind and Victim Support.

What this study also revealed was that the victims of crime often felt as if the police dismissed their claims and didn't take them seriously as crime victims because they had mental health problems. Similarly, some claimed they were afraid of reporting crimes as they feared being sectioned or detained under the mental health act. It is hard to imagine what impact the Sun's headline may have on them; they are already struggling to receive the justice they should be entitled to anyway, and fear having their conditions exposed without the added burden of a national newspaper making them out to be murderous.

Campaigns like Time To Change and charities like Mind and Rethink are using their national presence to put mental health in the spotlight. Events like the Mind Human Library and Time to Change Village invite members of the public who are past and present sufferers of mental health problems to speak to people on the streets about their conditions to demonstrate how mental health issues can affect anybody and a diagnosis does not mean they cannot lead a meaningful life. Evaluations of such campaigns and events are slightly mixed but the results suggest that we are making the first steps at least, towards a less prejudiced society. However, it is very clear that stigma still exists and headlines like those used by The Sun newspaper are only going to delay progress, or even worse, move us backwards into Medieval attitudes towards mental health.

Please sign this petition to get the Sun to apologise and print a full correction and make a sizeable donation from Monday's newspapers to a mental health charity.