Even if you aren’t picking up a physical paper and flicking through its pages, chances are that on occasion you have been scrolling down your Twitter feed and have come across a BBC news article that caught your attention.
Most of us will not doubt what we read in the headlines: newspapers are one of the most influential sources of information available to us, so why wouldn’t we believe them.
For example, how many times have you read about a natural disaster in the news and thought to yourself:
Surely the earthquake wasn’t really 4.3 in magnitude?
Did 600 people actually have to evacuate their homes when the flood hit? It was probably less.
Newspapers tell us what’s going on in the world, don’t they?
Despite this, when it comes to certain topics, we are unknowingly presented with biased portrayals of reality. Sadly, mental health is one of these topics.
Perhaps the most famous recent example of an infuriating headline is ‘1200 killed by mental health patients’ printed in The Sun in 2013. Many newspapers, and charities involved in mental health, deemed it ‘irresponsible and wrong’.
This is just one of countless cases of damaging ways that mental health is presented to us; fearmongering plastered across the front pages of the most widely read papers and websites.
It is important to note that I am not saying that journalists lie — rather, they sometimes present the evidence in ways that depict mental health in a negative light.
This only serves to exacerbate the stigma surrounding mental health.
Because mental health patients are continuously linked with crime and violence, we are influenced to believe that, essentially, they all are ‘dangerous criminals who threaten our safety’.
This could not be further from the truth.
Just as the crimes of one person cannot condemn the rest of us, people with mental illness are no different to anyone else; ‘they’ are not all criminals.
In fact, in stark contrast with media stories, crimes by people with mental illness are incredibly rare occurrences, and also massively outweighed by the number of crimes committed by offenders who do not suffer with any mental health disorders.
A fact report from the Time-To-Change charity broke down the statistics for 2009.
The whole population of England and Wales is 43 million people, and when considering adult mental health rates, it can be estimated that around 7 million experience mental health difficulties.
That year, around 50 cases of homicide involving a person with a known mental health disorder at the time were reported.
So, the other six million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and fifty individuals are not murderers, andnot dangerous at all.
In general, there are around 1.5 homicide convictions per 100000 population in England and Wales.
In order to prevent one stranger homicide, 35 000 patients with schizophrenia judged to be at high risk of violence would need to be detained.
Thus, even if the risk of violence in mental illness is reduced, 96% of the violence which currently occurs would remain as it is, because it occurs at the hands of the ‘general public’.
Mental health is not a top contributor to violence or crime.
In fact, the truth is that mental illness is more likely to place a person to be at risk of being as a victim, rather than a perpetuator, of crime.
People with a mental disorder are 5 times more likely to become the victim of crimes, such as violent assault, compared to everyone else. Statistics like such are harrowing in contrast to what we are so wrongly led to believe.
Because of this negative labelling, the media tends to group those with mental health difficulties as ‘others’, separate from ‘the rest of us,’ and thus connections to crime and violence due to a single case are subsequently and unfairly reflected on this whole ‘group’.
A study published in 2017, comparing media coverage of mental vs physical health, revealed that over half of articles addressing mental health were written in a ‘negative tone’.
Furthermore, a massive 18.5% linked mental health and violence, compared with a minute 0.3% of articles linking physical health and violence… need I say more?
Going back to the article published in The Sun, the article claimed to reveal ‘disturbing failings in Britain’s mental health system’, allowing mental health patients to be a danger to the general public.
The number presented, ‘1200,’ is correct. But, The Sun missed that this figure is not the number of people killed by mental health patients (that is, people under the care of psychiatric services).
Rather, as highlighted by Channel 4, this is the number of people killed by individuals suffering from mental illness who were both treated or untreated — a significant difference.
Labelling the entire group as mental health ‘patients’, and suggesting that services are not a helpful preventative measure, could lead people to believe that psychiatric treatments do not work — that, as soon as there is a mental health problem, treatment or no treatment, there is danger.
However, scientific research exploring mental health and crime, specifically homicide rates, demonstrate that rates of homicide decrease with psychiatric interventions, and so it is important to clarify this.
Adding to the negative spin, The Sun article also missed that the original report actually highlighted a significant decrease in the number of mental health-related crimes over time: that this figure was the lowest it had been in 20 years — so, actually a positive message about mental health which had not been put across.
While the newspapers are not solely responsible for the stigma, media has exacerbated the issue significantly, and the consequences need to be recognised. The danger of stigma is more concerning than maybe initially perceived.
Continually facing the stigma around mental illness can worsen mental health, prevent seeking treatment, lead to isolation and unemployment, and can essentially trap individuals in a cycle of illness.
The media may not have necessarily created the issue, but it continues, and will continue, to magnify the issue, unless there is a big change.
Words have power, and so do the media. The words written in the newspapers should be used to raise awareness and to debunk the stigma that has somehow led us to believe that people who suffer from mental health difficulties are criminals, and that they are any different to the rest of us.
Just as we have seen an overall increase in general reports on mental illness (which is a good thing), we need to see a decrease in the proportion of these written with a negative tint.
We need to see less bias toward linking crime with mental illness, and more accounts from the people who actually live with mental illness.
So, give us the facts, the actual truth.
Not all mental health patients are criminals, so why should they be made to feel as though they are?