The Sun & mental health: come on, you can do better…

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A s a former health writer and deputy health editor at The Sun, I’ve spent many an occasion batting off laughs, sneers and suggestions that Britain’s favourite red top couldn’t possibly ‘take health seriously’.

When I wrote for the health section of the country’s biggest selling national newspaper, I felt privileged to have an opportunity to help inform all kinds of people about health issues. As such, I took the role extremely seriously. I stood by The Sun when I worked there and I’ve defended it in the years since I left (at least as far as its health coverage is concerned).

True, if you were to play a word association game about The Sun, you’d probably think ‘page 3’ or ‘boobs’ (or ‘phone hacking’ – nope, I didn’t, which is why I’m writing this from the comfort of my own home and not an open prison) rather than ‘exclusive health story’. No surprise there. This prevailing reputation was why it was, at times, tricky to convince experts that whilst they were taking health seriously, we were taking it seriously, too. In fact, I remember being openly laughed at by a well-known fertility pioneer when my boss and I introduced ourselves to him at the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries annual awards dinner. ‘Does The Sun really cover health?’ he mocked, unable to stop laughing.

He wasn’t the only one, I have to admit. Aside from doctors who weren’t happy to speak to us because of the Hillsborough coverage back in April 1989, there were those who wouldn’t speak to us because they thought they might be misrepresented. But within time, that changed. ‘Any medic who cares about the health of the nation ought to be happy to speak to The Sun’, I remember one saying to me. We gained trust and some experts even saw us as an important – and accurate – vehicle for public health change.

This is why I am so disappointed with The Sun’s recent headline about murders carried out by people with mental health issues. I’m disappointed professionally, as someone who used to write for the paper, and I’m disappointed personally, as someone who suffers from mental health problems.

On Monday 7 October, The Sun splashed with the headline, ‘1,200 people killed by mental patients’, and inside it had a double-page spread intoning, ‘Broken people…broken system’. Although in it’s ‘exclusive investigation’, the reporters say that many of the ‘high risk patients’ who committed murder over the past decade were let down by the system, experts still say that the story is detracted from by the screaming headline. As Sue Baker, director of mental health awareness charity Time to Change replied to a tweet from The Sun’s Stephen Abell defending the paper’s coverage, ‘it is the front page headline that will fuel stigma. Appreciate the inclusion of Mind comment but outweighed.’

In his blog, Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s assistant blog editor, points out that the story ‘appears to be nonsense from top to bottom. What’s more, even if it weren’t, it would be irresponsible and dangerous.’

The stats used in the article are from the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness Annual Report July 2013, by the University of Manchester. But Chivers says they show that the actual figure is 615 murders per year, not the 1,200 cited by The Sun. It would seem The Sun came to its figure of 1200 by adding the number of people with symptoms of mental illness to the number of people who had used mental health services in the previous year (i.e not patients), so he says their figure is an overestimate by a massive 65 per cent.

Not only that but figures show that the number of people killed by mental health service patients has been dropping each year since 2004. The fact remains that you are way more likely to be a victim of crime if you suffer from a mental health condition than be the perpetrator of one.

By screaming this headline, I don’t think The Sun has done anyone any favours, neither the people who died at the hands of these extremely ill people nor those extremely ill ones who are struggling, through stigma, to keep their heads above water and live their lives.

As Mind’s Sue Baker says, ‘We are still picking up the pieces from terrible headlines ‘mad psycho killers’ mid to late 90s. Whatever the agenda this coverage is harmful.’

I’ve never wanted to kill anyone, but I have, over the years, had many thoughts about taking my own life. And pretty much everyone I know who has, like me, had a serious mental illness has felt the same way. Mental illness is so insidious, so corrosive, that generally it leads to implosion rather than explosion, to the desire not to lash out at someone else but to quietly take your leave of the world and to simply be no more.

The figures reflect this rather than The Sun’s suggestion that we are all killers in the making. Any murder is despicable, whether the perpetrator is mentally ill or not – I am not diminishing the trauma of losing someone in this way. But the fact is, people like me are far more likely to be a danger to ourselves than to others (figures from 2011 show that 1,333 mental health patients killed themselves).

As Paul Jenkins, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness says, ‘There are 1.2 million people using secondary mental health services – the vast majority of whom pose no threat to anyone. This headline, which will be seen by millions of people today, creates a completely false picture which will only fuel the stigma and prevent more people from seeking help and support when they need it, including when they are in crisis.’

Organisations that seek to tackle mental health stigma, like Mind and Time to Change, have done so well in steering this supertanker of prejudice towards a different and more positive course. The last thing people like me need is The Sun making the public feel that anyone with a mental health moniker is a danger to them and everyone they love. The only person I’m a danger to and ever have been is myself. Generally speaking that’s the nature of mental illness.

I know The Sun can do it right. I’ve been on the inside and I’ve seen it happen, from advising people on how to be a good but informed patients to help a permanently pressurised NHS through to articles encouraging people to go for bowel cancer screening (a terminally ill boxer once contacted us to say, ‘I read your article and don’t want people to go through what I’m going through – please publish my story.’ Experts have told me that such clarion calls do wonders for cancer detection rates).

I also know that The Sun is doing a stirling job supporting the cause of genetic conditions and, as a result, bringing this subject into the public eye, as it quite rightly should be. So why can’t it help people with mental illness instead of further cementing people’s prejudice with nonsense articles? The powerful vehicle that is The Sun could really help to make British society one that is more tolerant of mental illness instead of pumping up prejudice and colluding with the lowest common denominator.

At the moment, I’m finding it hard to be The Sun’s greatest ambassador, as I often feel I am. But I live in hope that it’ll see the error of its ways and support the cause of people like me, instead of helping to boot us back to square one.

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Freelance journalist and mental health blogger, based in London UK

One Response to “The Sun & mental health: come on, you can do better…” Subscribe

  1. Johnny Steyn October 16, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    The Sun have you a reputation for this. Can you remember the Frank Bruno affair?! Only changed because Marjorie Wallace (SANE) called Rebekah whatsisname about it!

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