In recent years we’ve seen an enormous shift in public attitudes on mental health, and thankfully this has increased our national understanding and openness. More people than ever feel comfortable talking about mental health. In fact, since Time to Change – the anti-stigma campaign run in partnership by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness – began in 2007, there has been a 9.6 per cent improvement in public attitudes. That’s 4.1m people with more positive views on mental health.
But for all the steps forward we’ve seen there are still some outdated ideas that hold back progress, and this is particularly true when it comes to the subject of violence and mental health. We often see links made between violence and mental health, particularly in the media, and increasingly so when it comes to incidents of terrorism. But we know that often these media diagnoses are speculative and can serve to increase stigma.
Over a third of people think that people with a mental health problem are likely to be violent, when in fact people with mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violent crime, rather than perpetrators. Whatever the circumstances, it’s never helpful to make assumptions in relation to mental health and violence. When it comes to the media commenting on this, we want to see reports that stick to the relevant facts, avoid speculation, and contextualise the situation by highlighting how very few people with mental health problems are ever violent.
We know that many people who experience mental health problems don’t seek help, often because they fear being stigmatised or locked up if they open up. Fuelling this stigma pushes people away, forces people to bottle up how they’re feeling, and ruins lives. For almost two thirds of people with mental health problems, the stigma and discrimination experienced is as bad the symptoms of their condition. By talking about mental health and violence in a responsible way, we can encourage openness and allow people to seek help more easily.
When links are made between mental health problems and violence, the focus tends to be more severe mental health problems. Most studies that have tried to establish whether there is a link between violence and mental health have focused on psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a complicated diagnosis and, while the research does suggest that there is a slight increased risk of violence in those living with schizophrenia compared to the general population, all studies agree that the vast majority of people diagnosed with schizophrenia will never be violent.
Simplistic representations of mental health and violence also add to the problem. We know that having a mental health problem is not usually the only factor that leads to a risk of violence, but wider context is often missed. For example, substance abuse appears to play a significant role in cases of violence, whether the perpetrator has a mental health problem or not. The latest National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness provides some context to this, when it says: “In all four UK countries, most patients convicted of homicide also have a history of alcohol or drug misuse, between 88% in England and 100% in N Ireland.”
Whether we’re talking about schizophrenia or other types of mental health problem, it’s really important to remember that people experience symptoms in different ways and to different degrees of severity based on their personal circumstances. We all need to be respectful and sensitive to this, and not make generalisations that the research shows are tired and untrue stereotypes. Things are improving, though. When we look at the media, for the first time ever anti-stigmatising articles relating to mental health outweigh the number of stigmatising ones, which shows just how far we’ve come. But this is only a starting point. We all need to continue challenging the outdated beliefs around violence and mental health that too often sustain that stigma.
by Stephen Buckley, Head of Information, Mind