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

"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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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