Mental illness has a bad reputation when it comes to crime and punishment. How many times have you heard or read the word ‘murder’ and ‘schizophrenic’ in the same sentence, or a similar combination of words that describe violent crime and words that deal with a person’s state of mind? More than a few, I would wager. The mentally ill are far more likely to randomly kill people than those of a normal mind. Did you know that? Well, you may think you know that but in reality you do not. Nobody knows that because it simply is not true. In fact, the truth is that far from being likely perpetrators of crime, we are disproportionately represented in the statistics concerning demographics and the victims of crime, meaning that we are far more likely to suffer assault or other violent crime than those of sound mind. To add insult to injury we are rarely taken seriously if we are victims of crime, being largely ignored by the police and the courts and easily dismissed as unreliable witnesses by barristers who find it trivial and easy to convince a jury that a person’s mental health is a perfectly sound reason for taking nothing of what they say seriously. In fact, those endangered most by mental illness are the mentally ill themselves. Around 90% of suicides are initiated by a person suffering from mental distress.
What the media would have us all believe is that there is an army of wild-eyed, lank-haired lunatics wandering the streets waiting for the right moment to indiscriminately murder some innocent, unsuspecting person. In England and Wales there are approximately 7 million people with a mental illness at any given time and yet there are approximately 50-70 murders a year committed by a person with mental health problems (source) which means that when it comes to the media portrayal of the murdering army of schizophrenics/manic depressives et al the numbers simply do not add up. As ever the press has a vulnerable minority in its sights and they are not too interested in whether there is any truth to their reporting. Bad news is good news after all. In fact, stack up these numbers for yourself against the number of murders committed by drunks and you will start to see that the treatment of mental illness in the media is not just dishonest. It is not even incompetent. In the cold light of day it is a standing disgrace and as yet no champion has come forward to tackle the media outlets on their bigotry. In the UK if you show the slightest suggestion that you might be a danger due to your mental health you may be detained against your will for an indefinite period, possible the rest of your life. If you get drunk and kill someone with your car you can expect a driving ban and a suspended sentence, or if you do receive prison time you can count on being out in less than five years. Who is the bigger danger? Drunk drivers, by a country mile.
The message is clear: violence is not a symptom of mental illness, however vulnerability to crime, state-mandated abuse and violence, homelessness and more are most definitely linked. In the USA there are more mentally ill people living on the streets than in hospitals. In the world’s great superpower and supposedly the number one first world power on the planet that is simply scandalous. Sadly it is neither a surprise nor unique to America. In fact, it seems to me that the mentally ill are the ultimate pariahs of our society. There is not a single thing that is so terrible that can happen to a person that will not simply be shrugged off as entirely justified the moment it is discovered that the person to whom it happened is a ‘nutter’. Tag a person with that pejorative and there is nothing that you cannot get away with doing to them.
Tackling Stereotypes and Stigma
Tackling and changing the stigma and stereotypes associated with mental illness is a tall order. Bipolar disorder is now thought of as the latest fashionable diagnosis in some circles. Trawl the internet for long enough and you will see plenty of examples of people trotting out this tired old line. The greatest need we have is to stop the public and the press defining as the sum total of our illnesses. I may be bipolar and I may be out in the open as a confessed sufferer of my illness, hell I may even be happy to publicly define myself as bipolar, amongst other things, but that does not justify the behaviour of the media. Things have to change dramatically for our sake and that of others. I know exactly how it feels to be dismissed on the grounds of my illness. It cuts deeply and it never goes away. Once a person files you in their mind as mentally ill you never get past it. It is very much the equivalent of the Friend Zone. Once in there you never escape. Any opinion I have is easily ignored and not taken seriously as people say ‘well, he is bipolar’. Any time I exhibit strong emotions it is assumed to be a symptom, which is a convenient way to dismiss a person’s feelings completely. To be on the receiving end of such treatment is often soul-destroying and inspires anger and frustration. I may be mentally ill but I am still a person. I am reminded of the words of John F. Kennedy.
Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.
Wise words and true indeed. America, along with it’s ridiculous, paranoid obsession with guns has an even worse attitude to mental health and law enforcement. Rather than post a link to an individual story I invite you to do some research of your own and you will quickly see story after story testifying to the fact that USA policy is that the moment a mentally ill person shows even the slightest hint of being aggressive, even in the tiniest degree, then the trigger happy officers in attendance have the right, and indeed it would seem no option but to unload their entire clip into the head of the person concerned. This too is a standing disgrace and I have no doubt that the police in the UK would do exactly the same if they were armed. Of course, they will argue that their primary concern is for the safety of the public and their officers, as though the only two options available to them are either to murder a person for acting strangely or to allow them to go on a spree of violence and killing. The reality is that this is simply lazy, and the mystique surrounding mental illness and the ‘you never know what they might do’ attitude is the reason that they get away with it. Mark my words, this is nothing less than state sanctioned murder and I make no apology for saying so.
I would like to see law enforcement and its approach to mental health completely overhauled. Just as we often spend time persuading the suicidal that, with patience and medication, their lives all get better, so officers and judges must be trained and taught to understand that, with patience, persistence and a compassionate approach the stigma surrounding the mentally ill can be abolished and thus the approach to dealing with us in difficult situations can be rethought in order to gain an outcome that hurts nobody. It must become unacceptable to view the mentally ill as disposable, collateral damage and a casualty of the war on crime. The attitude that if somebody has to lose then it might a well be the loser is simply discrimination.
As with all human beings we, the mentally ill, live in our heads, and aside from the illness we think, feel, dream, aspire, despair, hope and much more. It is not fair to ignore all of that and mistreat us simply because you view it all as incidental to the illness. The reason for this is simple, and it is one I keep repeating. It could be you one day.