Dave's Progress. Chapter 67: A Difference of Opinion- Schizophrenia and the Media

In my voluntary work for the Media Action Group for Mental Health, we often have to deal with, what we feel, are misrepresentations of mental ill health in the media. One of the overwhelming misrepresentations that we deal with is the spurious link made between schizophrenia and violence. While we cannot deny that some experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenic illness sometimes become violent, we have to continually point out that such incidences are very rare and usually only happen when someone is not receiving appropriate treatment. In a recent survey it was revealed that something like 75% of newspaper editorials linked mental ill health, when it was reported, to violence. In sharp contrast to this, the actual statistics show that random, unmotivated, violent attacks by those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia are about as likely to happen as being struck by a bolt of lightening. So, it would seem, the public have this continual battle between information and misinformation about mental ill health to decipher and so is it really any wonder that there is such confusion when it comes to the matter of mental illness?
Indeed, it would appear to me that our anti-stigma message seems to be getting more and more coverage. I don't know whether this is due to the fact that I work in an office surrounded by anti-stigma material, but it does seem that whether it be locally or nationally, our messages are finally getting through to the media itself. As we are a local charity, our letters of rebuttal or complaint often go to the local newspaper, and it does seem that even in Stoke-on-Trent, there are voices of support for our message. Nationally, there is the multi-million pound anti-stigma campaign, "Time to Change", whose films about the misrepresentation of schizophrenia, in particular in relation to violence, are now going to be screened at cinemas nationwide, as well as being available on the internet. Also, when the "Time to Change" roadshow came to Stoke-on-Trent, I was heartened, as I revealed in this blog, at the amount of sympathy and understanding the majority of the people who I encountered expressed towards those with experience of mental ill health. So, despite statistics which seem to continually tell us that prejudice against those with mental illness is assuredly alive and kicking, it seems to me that, at last, some of what we do as anti-stigma campaigners may be beginning to pay off. As I have said, there is little statistical evidence for this, but when one reads or hears positive responses from the public, one cannot help but be buoyed by them.
However, there still remains the problem of misrepresentation in the media. As if in direct competition with our own information, it would appear that the only time a story about schizophrenia gets in to the press or television news is when someone with the diagnosis has committed an act of violence. Stories of recovery or achievement, which we would tend to concentrate on as anti-stigma campaigners, are altogether too rare. The news media would also seem to make basic errors when reporting incidents, often confusing the symptoms of "psychosis" and "psychopathy", as if any word with the prefix "psycho" means an immediate link with deviance, criminality or violence. Maybe we should blame old Alfie Hitchcock! So, although, as anti-stigma campaigners, we cannot deny that some people with mental illness become violent, we can decidedly argue that the news media distorts and misrepresents the extent of that violence.
As if to compound the confusion over these conflicting views, a recent BBC documentary entitled "Why Did You Kill My Dad?" was aired which looked in to and raised important questions about, mental illness, violence and also the part played by mental health services in that scenario. The documentary, by Julian Hendy, was perhaps a little biased as his own father had been killed in a random violent incident involving a man with mental illness. Indeed, the programme prompted responses from Mind, Time to Change and Rethink, all stating that while the programme raised important issues, it should be remembered that such incidents are extremely rare.
Among the issues pointed out, though, there were several which gave food for thought. The fact, for example, that the statistics for homicides committed by those experiencing mental ill health were correlated in such a fashion as to seemingly downplay the connection between mental health and violence. For example, only the number of perpetrators was counted in the statistics and only those with relatively recent experience of being in mental health care. As a result of this, one perpetrator could have committed a number of murders, but as the number of victims were discounted, this would only count as one incident. Consequently, Hendy argued that the number of murders committed by people with mental ill health was more like double the official figure of 52 per year.
Such issues are vexing for those of us in the anti-stigma business, as they would only seem to serve to drive fear of mental ill health, which in turn can lead to people not seeking treatment, which in turn causes even more problems. The programme, however, did avoid "blaming" patients outright for their behaviour, seeing many of the incidents as a result of an ineffective and somewhat irresponsible mental health service. Despite this, though, it did tend to demonise the perpetrators of the incidents by portraying them as somewhat two-dimensional characters with seemingly no past. While the victims' lives and the grief of their families was clearly and emotively shown, those involved with mental ill health were merely shown in rather unattractive mug-shots, with absolutely no explanation given of their own past, family or illness, which may have led them to commit such an act. Everyone has a story, it would seem, but in this instance, the stories of the perpetrators were severely neglected.
So, where does this leave us? One can only hope, as an anti-stigma campaigner, that the public choose to believe that which is statistically and evidentially proven, that the majority of those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia are law-abiding citizens trying to get on with their lives, rather than the violent, axe-wielding stereotype often seen in the sensationalist news media. It would appear that this has become almost a matter of public relations, with whoever's message being the strongest coming out on top. We must always be wary, I think, then, that sensationalism and misrepresentation, however prurient or untrue, sells news, while the truth of the majority of mental ill health perhaps simply remains just too banal and uneventful to ever take centre stage.
That's all for now from your normal, average, paranoid and delusional man.


bazza said…
David this is such a difficult problem and I am afraid I find it hard to be optimistic that new attitudes are about to prevail.
It seems to be embedded in human nature that those percieved as 'different' in any way are seen as outsiders.
Groups oppose each other, split and splinter and then sub-divide and so on ad infinitum. It's a soft target to want to see those labelled as different being held at arms length from society.
Hope I'm not being too negative; it's not like me!
David said…
Dear bazza,
Firstly, thank you for reading this post, but I don't think that you are being overly pessimistic. In particular in terms of the diagnosis "schizophrenia" things remain very difficult. Something like 70% of people with the diagnosis remain unemployed, they tend to die younger (10 years below the average) and the stigma of being either violent or completely dysfunctional remains.
So, although I say in my post that it is heartening to see enlightened attitudes popping up (such as your own, bazza, and I thank you for that) the overall picture looks gloomy.
Personally, I think it will probably take at least a generation to see real and lasting change, and only when the facts of mental illness are instilled at an early age in schools, perhaps.
On a brighter note, you may be aware that I have this diagnosis myself and this blog, mostly about, amongst other things, coming to terms with that, has been very well received by all who comment. I have yet to get any "nasty" comments. Then again, there is always your new buddy, Tom Eagleton to consider!
Thanks for taking the time to read and comment once again,
Yours with Very Best Wishes,
Dear David,
Just wanted to acknowledge this interesting post of your's. A Fibro fog holds me captive lately, or I'd enter discussion.
I hope you'll continue the work you do, clarifying and encouraging.
Yours in peace,
David said…
Dear Dixie,
Thank you for your encouragement. I will certainly continue doing what I do, and I hope that you too can continue with your blog when you are feeling better.
Thanks most of all for letting me know how you are. What with all the furore over your "It's All Over" posting, i thought we may never hear from you again, so am decidedly glad that you have got in touch.
Thank you and wishing you very good health,
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