Stigma rears its ugly head

The Sun at its worst (yet again)

The erroneous and stigmatic Sun headline

So yet again people with mental illness find themselves subject to stigma. On Monday 7 October 2013 The Sun newspaper alleged in a full page headline that over a ten year period 1,200 people had been killed by “mental patients”. The wording “mental patients”” mirrors the hugely inappropriate fancy dress costume which ASDA and Tescos were forced to withdraw from sale on their websites (be a third party). Not only was the language stigmatising and the period to which the figures applied much smaller than the sensational headline but they were simply wrong.

The figures are taken from the The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness (NCISH). This is a programme, based in Manchester University that has been running over the past ten years. The data actually shows that over that period 1,200 people have been killed by individuals subsequently found to have a mental illness. The number of patients (i.e people in contact with mental health services, perviously diagnosed with mental illness) was significantly smaller. The average number of homicides per year is around 74 for the UK as a whole and that has been falling since a peak in 2004-2006. This is an important distinction when you look at the wider picture.

Number of homicide victims of patients or people with mental illness at the time of the offence by UK country

In a British Medical Journal paper from 2004, individuals who killed a person unknown to them were less likely to be known to people with mental illness or to have been patients with mental illness than perpetrators of homicide in general. These homicides were most likely to be men killing other men in violent attacks carried out under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. The 2013 NCISH report showed that patients with mental illnesses were more likely to kill those known to them (62%) than strangers (17%).

Perpetrators with a primary diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Perpetrators with a primary diagnosis of schizophrenia.

It is worth looking at this question from the opposite perspective. Are people with mental illness more likely to victims of homicide? A Swedish study showed that people with mental illness were at a five times greater risk of being a victim than the people who did not have a mental illness.

To quote a rebuttal published on the site The Conversation,

“The data tells us that people with mental illness and patients who are mentally ill are themselves vulnerable to violent acts. Also, in some cases homicide perpetrators are mentally ill or are mental health patients, and pose a risk to others. Only accurate and balanced reporting can help us move beyond stigmatising people with a mental illness, and move away from an “us and them” mentality. Equally, only by acknowledging that some people with mental illness are a risk to others, in some cases, can we address this public health issue.”

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