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Laurie Penny on The Sun: fearmongering about mental health is what's really monstrous

The paper's frontpage claim that "1,200 killed by mental patients" is misleading - and it exposes exactly the kind of prejudice that implies people with mental health problems are violent, unstable monsters.

The Sun's frontpage for 7 October 2013. Photo via @SuttonNick on Twitter
The Sun's frontpage for 7 October 2013. Photo via @SuttonNick on Twitter

"1,200 killed by mental patients." Today's drooling Sun headline plays on precisely the kind of fearmongering that people with mental health problems have come to fear most, implying that they are violent, unstable monsters - as well as lazy benefit scroungers making up their illnesses in order to milk the system. The headline is entirely misleading. In fact, the most recent available figures show that "there has been a fall  in homicide by people with mental illness, including people with psychosis" since 2004.

The Sun claims that, far from seeking to stigmatise the mentally ill, its cover story draws attention to how many have been let down by poor mental health provision over the past decade. That's why it led with the sort of weary sensationalist headline that exploits prejudice against the sick and vulnerable to sell papers.

In Britain and across the global north, one in four people will experience significant mental health problems in their lifetimes. With the right treatment and support, most of those people are able to make a full recovery, but some need ongoing care, particularly in a society where employers are often less than understanding about how depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions affect people's ability to hold and keep a job. It's no wonder that some people choose not to disclose their mental health history, often struggling without help for years, between fear of getting sacked and the persistence of cruel, lazy sterotypes like the grotesque 'Mental Patient' and 'Psycho Ward' Hallowe'en costumes recently released by Asda and Tesco respectively - in which you could dress up as a terrifying crazy person, strait-jacketed, covered in blood and brandishing a meat cleaver. It's stigma like this that make people with severe and ongoing mental health difficulties up to ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than they are to perpetrate it.

Mental health problems can be scary - but not in that way. They're frightening to go through, and they're particularly frightening to go through alone. In my experience, a more accurate 'Mental Patient' costume would be a slightly funky-smelling jumper - when I'm having a bout of the blues, I'm usually strict about doing laundry, but sometimes it takes me a while to actually get the stuff out of the washing machine and hang it up, leading to a distinct whiff of damp Persil. Hardly Normal Bates, but trust me, on the inside I'm quaking.

Like a lot of people, I sometimes get depressed and anxious. On precisely none of these occasions have I flown into a murderous rage and stabbed up a stranger. Mostly, I just want a cup of tea and a cuddle, and perhaps to curl up with Netflix until I feel better.

The Sun is right about one thing, though - it is indeed a disgrace that the mental health care system in the UK is so chronically short of funds, meaning that those in most need often miss out on essential care. As austerity takes its toll on the emotional resilience of an already stressed and unequal society, there is now even less provision to take care of people with severe depression, debilitating anxiety, or more chronic conditions like psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Part of the reason people with mental health difficulties continue to face such poisonous prejudice, part of the reason the government is able to impoverish and stigmatise those receiving care in the community with relative ease, is that there has been a relentless campaign against mentally ill benefit claimants, a campaign led by right-wing tabloids like the Sun. The Sun has fought for years to make withdrawal of care from people with mental health difficulties socially acceptable. The Sun, and its editors' former riding partners in government, have stood by whilst more and more mental patients commit suicide after that care is withdrawn and they are plunged into lonely, desperate destitution. That it now claims to be championing their cause, even as it paints the mentally ill as savage, violent semi-humans - that's what's truly monstrous.