psycho cabbie

Recent events demonstrate that society’s attitudes toward mental illness have not changed. Although one in four of people will suffer from a mental health problem in their lifetime, there is a stigma associated with mental health which prevents many sufferers from seeking help. Though recent events have forced a discussion of attitudes toward mental health, this discussion is largely paying lip service to politically correct attitudes. More is required to stop the vilification of those who suffer from mental health problems, and this can only be done through challenging attitudes which rely on crude stereotypes.

Mental illness is generally represented through violent ‘psychopaths’ and mad scientists, making mental health a staple feature of horror films. Perhaps the morbid curiosity stems from the idea the mental health sufferer appears human but appears but behaves differently (not necessarily radically different, just enough to arouse our fear of things we don’t understand) from what is accepted as ‘normal’. The violent and unpredictable ‘psycho’ is a classic example. The word originates from psychopathy, an inability to feel empathy. It is now used as an insult. Many tabloids played on this stereotype when paranoid schizophrenic Phillip Simelane attacked Christina Edkins on a bus in Birmingham. Yet despite schizophrenia being an umbrella term, schizophrenics are nearly always depicted as violent. So to use this stereotype isn’t just wrong, it’s incredibly irresponsible and misleading to characterise a group in such a way.

This kind of thinking must be challenged through a change in attitudes. Obviously this is not calling for an amnesty for all mental health sufferers. Some acts must be punished, but with the distinction being drawn between those who are deviant and those who need help. At present, this distinction is not necessarily made. After Christina Edkins’ tragic murder, The Sun (Britain’s most widely read newspaper) reported that 1,200 mental patients had committed murders due to government failings. This is blatant scaremongering. Ian Cummings, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Salford, rightly attacks this crass headline: it does not distinguish between those who were patients at the time of the murder and those who were found to have mental health problems after their arrest. It is impossible for the second group to be known to the mental health services before they were found to have mental health problems. That is basic, and it is shameful to think that a paper would run such a story.

The Mental Health Foundation reports that more than 70 per cent of prison inmates have two or more mental health disorders. Of this population, male prisoners are 14 times more likely to have two or more disorders than men in general, and female prisoners are 35 times more likely than women in general. Given these statistics, running prisons as a home intended to punish evil people rather than as a place to treat inmates for their conditions seems counterproductive. That isn’t to say make prison ‘easy’, but helping people to do something constructive or manage their problems during their stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure rather than letting them stew in a cell getting angrier and angrier will help them rehabilitate and cope with their problems. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is currently investigating the death of 33 year old Terry Smith in police custody. It will be interesting to see what they find.

I would also speculate the headline’s implied message would discourage readers who suspected they may be suffering from a mental health disorder from getting treatment. Many disorders are treatable, but the stereotype being used here portrays all sufferers of mental health problems as deviants. It does not discriminate between those who are likely to be violent and those who are not. Instead, all sufferers are represented as deviants to be punished, rather than patients with a health problem who deserve care and treatment. In fact, the most common mental health disorder is mixed anxiety and depression. Mental health charity Mind believes somewhere between eight and 12 per cent of the population will suffer from depression in any given year.

What about villainous ‘psychos’? Statistics indicate that those with mental health problems are far more likely to hurt themselves than hurt anyone else. Suicide remains the highest cause of death in men under 35; and suicide rates in prisons run 15 times higher than the general population average. Yet ASDA and Tesco have shown through their Halloween costumes that the inmates in such ‘asylums’ are to be feared. The ‘Mental Patient’ and ‘Psycho Ward’ costumes were pulled only after complaints from the mental health lobby.

Our biases are far more engrained than we realise. We have inherited a wealth of opinions and attitudes that we are not aware of. We express these through language. We should ask ourselves whether it is right to say someone is ‘acting crazily’, or whether tidy friends can be described as a bit ‘OCD’. Perhaps we should describe evil people as ‘evil’, rather than ‘sick’. Some terms have become so embedded they cannot be reclaimed: ‘bedlam’ is an expression for chaos but it was originally the nickname of Bethlem Royal Psychiatric Hospital in south London. Its origins can be traced to 1247, making it Britain’s oldest psychiatric hospital.

Attitudes toward mental health matter because the tendency to view someone behaving abnormally or strangely is to view them with suspicion. Obviously, there are times when this is appropriate, but if someone if genuinely suffering from a problem, then they need to receive treatment. The stigma mental health carries is still prevalent in our culture, and further steps need to be taken if it is to be removed completely.