Originally published as a news feature in Qmunicate Magazine, Nov 2013.
The Sun caused a stir recently when it ran a front page headline claiming that mental patients are responsible for well over a thousand deaths in the past decade. The 7th October issue investigation was titled, ’1,200 killed by mental patients’, before going on to brand its findings ‘disturbing’ and declaring a crisis in the mental health care system and its handling of high-risk patients. The article’s source is research by University of Manchester academics (who have since accused the publication of misrepresenting their findings), but many outraged readers, charity leaders and MPs believe that The Sun is adding to the stigmatisation of mental illness in society.
The Sun’s managing editor Stephen Abell took to twitter to defend the piece, marking it as a ‘call for better communication between agencies’. The content of the article, however, has been largely acknowledged as outweighed by the potentially damaging front page headline. Mental health campaigners blame the false link between mental illness and violence as one of the many contributing factors to the wide-spread misunderstanding of mental illness; something which, many claim, is being strongly reinforced by The Sun’s actions.
The issue has been widely discussed in recent times after public outcry forced Tesco, Asda and Amazon to pull offensive ‘mental patient’ and ‘psycho ward’ Halloween costumes from the shelves. Asda’s £20 ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costume featured a straitjacket covered in blood and pictured the character wielding a knife, while Tesco’s outfit consisted of an orange jumpsuit with ‘committed’ stamped across the back. Amazon traders also carried a wide array of ‘psycho’ costumes. Both supermarkets revoked the products immediately and offered apologies as well as a £25,000 donation from Asda to the charity Mind, of which Stephen Fry is the president, in an attempt to compensate for the ‘unacceptable error’.
The response to the costumes across social media was huge. Many Twitter users who suffer from poor mental health began to post pictures of themselves alongside the hashtag ‘#mentalpatientcostume’ to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the stereotypes enhanced by the fancy dress costumes. 1 in 4 adults in the UK will experience poor mental health at some point in their lives and suicide rates are the highest in a decade. According to the chief executive of mental health charity SANE Marjorie Wallace, the retailers’ perpetration of stereotypes could be ‘leaving those already struggling with mental health problems more lonely and excluded’.
In recent years, the open discussion of mental illness has become more widely accepted, believed by many to be crucial in the treatment of and general attitude towards the mentally ill. Incidents such as The Sun’s headline and offensive fancy dress costumes, however, have been labelled as a step backwards. The realities of illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder still go widely unacknowledged despite progress. With ‘OCD’ and ‘schizo’ quickly becoming casual parts of vocabulary used to describe anything but the often life-ruining conditions, many wonder if the fight against this ignorance is futile.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there – Miley Cyrus has continued to make headlines after an insensitive jibe at Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor’s battle with mental illness. O’Connor’s divisive open letter to Cyrus regarding her recent behaviour was quickly overshadowed when they were met with a tweet stating, ‘Before Amanda Bynes… There was…’ to which a selection of old tweets were attached, consisting of O’Connor, who suffers from bipolar disorder, appearing to ask for psychiatric help. 27 year old actress Amanda Bynes was hospitalised earlier this year following a very public deterioration of mental wellbeing. While the 20 year old’s mockery of mental illness quickly changed the minds of many who had been defending her, some of her more passionate fans took it upon themselves to send death threats to O’Connor, even urging her to commit suicide. She requested an apology from Cyrus, to herself and Bynes as well as ‘all sufferers of mental health difficulties and all those who have had experience of suicidal feelings or who had been affected by suicide’ – a request which went ignored.
While this regular reinforcement of the stigma surrounding mental illness is being met with more and more opposition, it remains to be seen if this will be enough to bring an end to such ignorance in the media.