The Sun's frontpage for 7 October 2013

In the same week that we celebrate World Mental Health Day, the Sun newspaper ran a front page headline which read “1,200 killed by mental patients”. The statistics were written in lurid ‘blood red’ with much smaller writing below which stated ‘Shock 10 year toll exposes care crisis”. We don’t need to have taken a course in semiotics to make sense of the message. The newspaper said the report was justified in bringing attention to severe underfunding in mental health services provision. This tacit admission that shock tactics are being used to represent a crisis in health and social care can only be seen to fuel public fears about the quality of provision. The threat to ‘Us’, the ‘ordinary population’ is implicit despite the fact that  the veracity of the statistics are disputed.  Coupled to the on-going austerity agenda this headline contributes to the ‘perfect storm’ whereby vulnerable people are increasingly  stigmatised.

Commentators took to blogs, twitter and other media to condemn the news reporting as sensationalist and fuelling prejudice.  But this is not an isolated case. Just two weeks ago a major UK supermarket was forced to pull ‘mental patient’ Halloween costumes from their stores following a twitter storm where people condemned the grossly stereotypical outfit. The costume was advertised on the supermarket website with the image of a masked bloodied figure in strait jacket, holding a meat cleaver. The sales description read  “Everyone will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume…. it’s a terrifying Halloween option”. To link those in mental distress with violence to others is a powerful media message that campaigners have long sought to challenge.

New media allows a swift response to stories such as these. Campaigns can be finely targeted towards a particular media or consumer outlet but there is little doubt that the front page mainstream tabloid headline is a powerful and iconic image in UK culture. Furthermore, for The Sun, the mix of mental health, violence and ‘rogue’ benefit claimants is a heady one.  Laurie Penny of the New Statesman wrote that the 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 impact of stigma is very real. These types of messages are the cause of considerable distress to those who experience mental health problems and to members of their social networks. As many as 9 out of 10 people who experienced mental health problems also experienced stigma, often reporting the experience of stigma was worse than the experience of emotional distress. People who experience stigma are less likely to seek help, and are more likely to be subject to forced treatment. They are also more likely to experience crime than the general population and to fear that they would not be believed or that they may even be detained under mental health legislation.

Campaigns such as #timetochange have tried to challenge socio cultural perceptions of those in mental distress by explicitly using social media to encourage people to share their stories. They have worked with former Labour press aide Alistair Campbell to lend profile to their campaign. Indeed Campbell was vocal in condemning the Sun headline this week. Despite new innovative campaigns and a greater willingness for celebrities to discuss their own mental health problems can we say much has changed? The Sun article marked a return to the mid -1990s where stories of ‘mad psychos’ were rampant. Research conducted in the wake of the move from institutionalised care towards ‘care in the community’ showed that media coverage played a significant role in fuelling public prejudice and stigma. The Glasgow Media Group conducted the first systematic study of mental health in the mass media. The most striking finding was the high prevalence of media stories in which those referenced as being ‘mentally ill’ were associated with ‘violence to others’.  Stories typically included reports of attacks on strangers in which the protagonist was labelled ‘maniac’, ‘madman’ and ‘psycho’. A more recent study by the same group highlighted that 45% of stories involving fictional characters with mental illness linked them with violence or harm to others.

The Sun article comes at a time when the UK press has never been under greater pressure to self-regulate and to examine their ethics in news gathering practices. It is also a time when sections of the UK media have been seen to drive a ‘benefits scrounger’ agenda and to fuel discrimination against those who are in fact already marginalised. Many are dissuaded from claiming support to which they are entitled for fear of being branded ‘scrounger’.  The success of challenging stigmatising reporting lies partly in shifting perceptions that those in mental distress (and who may also rightly be in receipt of benefits) are ‘them’ and those in mental health are ‘us’.

Graham Thornicroft says, “Our popular images of madness are both long-standing and remarkably stable. One of the best established patterns is to refer to people with mental illnesses as the ‘polar opposites of us”. Much has been done in terms of challenging old stereotypes concerning mental distress but just one high profile headline can undermine these efforts. In the current climate of austerity it is likely that many vulnerable groups will be targeted and scape -goated by parts of the media, from benefits claimants to migrants to those in mental distress. Despite the perception that we live in an enlightened culture when it comes to ‘minority’ groups in our society we must face the reality that the vulnerable have never been more easily targeted.