The Sun splash missed point on ‘mental patient murders’

Christina Edkins’ murder was a rare and awful thing. Joe Giddens/PA

1,200 killed by mental patients – shock ten-year toll exposes care crisis

The Sun used this apparently shocking statistic this week to blame the criminal justice system for the death of Christina Edkins, who was stabbed on a bus in March this year. Phillip Simelane, who has admitted the attack, had a history of violence, including serving a prison sentence for threatening his mother with a knife. While in prison, he was assessed by mental health professionals because of concerns not only about his violent behaviour but also because staff were concerned that he was suicidal or might harm himself.

Simelane is clearly a disturbed young man in need of ongoing care and support from specialist mental health services. As he had served short sentences for the offences, he was not under any form of formal supervision at the time of this shockingly violent attack.

The Sun’s front page banner headline, picked out in bright red in large font, is plain wrong. It says that 1,200 patients committed acts of homicide between 2001 and 2010.

A reality check shows there are two distinct groups here. People who are patients at the time of the homicide and people who are subsequently assessed as having mental health problems (often after undergoing psychiatric assessment as part of the trial process). It’s unrealistic to expect mental health services to be aware of the second group.

The Sun has a history of contributing to and sustaining this stereotype of the mentally ill. The headline that ran above a report on the detention of Frank Bruno under the Mental Health Act – “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up” – is the most famous example. This traducing of a national treasure led to a backlash but the subsequent headline, “Sad Bruno in Mental Home”, hardly indicates the paper was chastened. Its subsequent reporting has followed a well-defined pattern with the continued linking of mental illness to violent offences.

The Sun’s report is at odds with the most recent report by the National Confidential Inquiry which indicates there were 29 homicides by mentally ill people in 2010, the lowest since 1997 when this data was collected for the first time. One of the report’s authors, Louis Appelby, has said the statistics quoted are wrong.

The actual number of patients involved in homicides during the period 2001-2010 was 738 (and the rate has dropped significantly since 2004). This is not to diminish in any way the traumatic impact that such events have on all the individuals and families involved. However, it is important that we debate these matters based on the evidence available rather than a series of lurid tabloid headlines.

What has been lost in much of the discussion of The Sun’s coverage is that at the side of the main feature, the paper reported details of a recent study highlighting the fact that people with mental health problems are much more likely to be victims of crime than other groups. And, as the NCI inquiry has found (and as I highlighted in a previous article) while the number of homicides by people with mental health problems has fallen in recent years there has been a significant rise in the number of suicides in this category.

The Sun’s editorial makes it clear that there are still huge barriers to vulnerable people when dealing with these issues. Its main findings make for sobering reading. The article stated:

  1. People with severe mental illness were three times more likely to be a victim of any crime than those without.
  2. People with severe mental illness were five times more likely to experience assault than those without.
  3. Women with severe mental illness were ten times more likely to experience assault than those without.

So, after being drawn in by the lurid front page headline, those people who made it past reports of X-Factor and other showbiz ephemera will have been confused by the editorial, as it appears to be sympathetic to the argument that there is an immediate need for investment in community mental health services if these issues are to be tackled.

Simelane’s case shows that the prison service and other criminal justice agencies cannot and should not be expected to provide the ongoing mental health support that will tackle these issues and should be provided by community health services. If The Sun had put that on the front page instead of the scaremongering story it did, that really would be news.

This article has been updated as a result of reader comments