Stigma in crisis: mental health, fear-mongering and murder

Opposition to having a charity-run mental health crisis centre in your street is both very telling and depressingly predictable.

Reading the objections to the Planning Permission application, you would think that they were proposing a hostel for unrepentant murderers, not a charity-run mental health centre. Rethink recently submitted an application to turn a house in Sheffield suburb into a “safe haven” crisis house for people experiencing mental health problems, and the opposition they have faced is both very telling and depressingly predictable.

The plan is to provide a place where a maximum of six people can stay for no longer than a week when their mental health is deteriorating towards a crisis point. The converted semi would offer a safe environment where they could receive intensive emotional support, and would also house a 24-hour helpline.

Along with complaints about increased traffic on the street, many local residents oppose the crisis house on the basis that children live on the street and walk to school, and the theme of “danger, danger” is seen throughout. One person complains that people who are unwell “will be frightning (sic) to local residents and may cause risk to children and other people in the area”, while another says that, “I would be reluctant to allow [my young teenager] to return from school unaccompanied if I thought there was a risk of her having to deal with difficult situations arising from this”.

Another uses carefully chosen (dare I say cherry picked?) statistics to prove just how likely residents will be to be murdered if this goes ahead (clue: there will barely be a survivor in the entire city), and the overall message is that those experiencing mental distress are to be feared, avoided, and ostracised. In short, they are most definitely “other”.

Many of those who object to the building's change of use do agree in principle that such facilities are worthwhile and important, they just do not think this one should be on their own street.

Some of the objections are also bewildering in their naïveté. When one woman explains that, “This is a quiet leafy suburb and I am not overreacting when I feel concern about the fact that we cannot be sure of who is coming and going”, I do wonder if she realises that this is the case, crisis house or not. The thing is, with the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems in the general population being so high this community, like all others, already has people experiencing mental distress in its midst anyway. They may not broadcast their difficulties but perhaps this is not surprising: the strength of feeling from those who commented on the planning application is pretty representative of the attitudes towards mental ill-health in our entire society.

So, let's start with the facts. 95 per cent of murders are committed by people who do not have a diagnosed mental health issue. Given that 25 per cent of the population can experience mental health problems, sane people appear to be statistically far more dangerous to be around. And people experiencing psychosis – those that the public seem to be the most afraid of – are 14 times more likely to be the victim of violent crime than they are to commit it.

Rethink are clear that nobody would stay in the house if they were thought to be a risk. They would be in hospital.

When somebody is in crisis they can either stay at home (where they are somebody's neighbour), go into hospital, or go into a crisis house for a few days. Kate Wareham, Rethink's regional Associate Director explained to me: “the intention is that we prevent people's illness escalating to the point where they require a hospital admission. We provide a safe, secure environment for people when they are experiencing a mental health crisis”. It will be used by people who accept that they need a bit of extra support for a while, and if Nether Edge residents (who are replicated the entire country over whenever mental health facilities are proposed) think that stopping the crisis house before it starts means they will have nobody experiencing mental distress living near them, they are seriously misguided. As Kate pointed out, “These people already live in Sheffield! These are people in the community”.

Planning permission has been granted to the facility, and Rethink really want to work with the local community, aware that many service users will not want to go to a crisis house where local people fear them. When someone needs a safe haven, they do not want to come up against this stigma and opposition to the care they need.

Stigma like this does have wide-ranging effects, all of them damaging. It means that the first response, when a horrific massacre takes place in the US, is instant speculation on the killer's mental health status; it means that people with mental health problems can't get a job when they want to work; it means that people feel isolated and excluded; it means people get physically and verbally abused; it means not getting physical health problems taken seriously; and it means that some people don't seek treatment that they desperately need because they are so afraid of what people will think.

Prejudice and bigotry are never pretty, and I'm more worried about children being taught to fear those who are distressed than I am about the statistically tiny threat from somebody who is undergoing treatment and receiving help. If they grow up believing that their own, or other people's, mental health problems will mean they will commit violent disorder and exhibit frightening behaviour, the stigma will continue to grow. Instead, we need to understand that many people experience mental distress, and that some of them will need more help than others. Putting barriers in the way of those people will only exacerbate their problems and their isolation. Society must move to a position of compassion and humanity towards this significant percentage of the population who currently experience it as anything but compassionate and humane.

How would you feel about having a mental health centre on your street? Photograph: Getty Images
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.