The Sun: distorted statistics and dangerous stigmas

This article was originally published in the Cherwell newspaper.

The Sun has done it again. Ten years after describing boxer Frank Bruno as ‘bonkers’ and ‘a nut’ for being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, they’ve now launched another offensive against the mentally ill. The newspaper published a front page headlined ‘1,200 killed by mental patients,’ relying on manipulated statistics to propagate the stereotypes mentally ill patients already face in the UK. Perhaps even more insultingly, the newspaper claims that the article is helping to improve mental health care. 

The sensationalist headline reflects the widespread stigmatisation and intolerance of mental health across Britain. By scaremongering using misinterpreted figures, the newspaper just helps to empower the popular myth that anybody suffering from a mental health condition is violent, dangerous and a threat to society. This misconception runs throughout society, shown by the discovery that leading UK supermarkets were selling Halloween costumes marketed as ‘Mental Patient’ and ‘Psycho Ward.’ It seems bizarre, that despite one in four of us suffering from mental health problems, mental illness is still misrepresented and vilified so readily.

Perhaps the problem is the huge taboo surrounding mental health – Oxford’s own ‘Mind Your Head’ campaign highlights the fact that ‘60% of those who suffer from a mental health condition say that the stigma surrounding their condition is as bad as, or worse than, the condition itself.’ Until people speak out about mental health, the myths and damaging stereotypes that newspapers like the Sun circulate will go unchallenged. Moreover, the Sun’s article (supposedly written to promote mental health care) won’t make anybody more comfortable to speak about their experiences – and instead will silence and isolate many, no doubt making the problem far worse.

Equally concerning is that the figures themselves have been warped and exploited, causing the professor behind the original report to explain that it was ‘misquoted’ by the tabloid. The study measured the prevalence of convicted murderers who experienced symptoms of mental illness at the time the offence was committed. Its author makes clear that the report lacks evidence in any of the cases that the symptoms of mental health recorded ‘led to the homicide,’ and it is clear that the report is merely informing on statistics and not their cause. Similar data could be found when you analyse any aspect of society which is reflected in the makeup of criminals – whether it be a physical illness, ethnicity or a socioeconomic class. However, the finding that a certain number of cancer patients committed a crime wouldn’t be elevated to the front page in a hope that readers would assume that the presence of a tumour had caused the offence, and neither should this irrational conclusion be applied to mental health. Put simply, the newspaper has no evidence whatsoever that symptoms of mental illness caused a single one of the homicides it so readily blames the mentally ill for. Because of this, it is obvious that associating mental health with crime is not only damaging and insulting to anyone with a mental health condition, but it is also incredibly absurd.

Additionally, the Sun conveniently neglected that the report found that year on year the number of homicides committed by the mentally ill is falling. This adds to the mounting evidence that the newspaper had meagre respect for the truth when publishing its story.

The most shocking element of the article, however, is the abhorrent claim that it was written in order to promote mental health care. It alleges to expose a mental health ‘care crisis,’ and asserted that improvement was needed in the mental health sector. Peculiar then, that the newspaper chose homicides (1,200 over a ten year period) to highlight problems in the treatment of mental health, especially once other figures are considered. In a single year, a tenth of the time that the 1,200 homicides took place, 1,333 mentally ill patients committed suicide, a statistic that is unfortunately increasing. Is this not reason enough to reform the mental health sector? What the Sun article screams more than anything else is that the newspaper doesn’t value the lives of the mentally ill as much it values the lives of the rest of society.

This attitude towards mental illness is where the problem lies. Mental health care is still seen by many as a means of protecting society – it seems that we cling to a perception of mental health which would still practice lobotomy, electroconvulsive therapy and the use of straightjackets. But mental health, like physical health, is crucial to our wellbeing, and doctors should be justified to treat the mentally ill simply because they are ill, and not because society might be impacted if patients are left untreated. Furthermore, this dangerous perception isn’t confined to British tabloids – even the liberal Guardian resorts to using suicide rates to validate mental health education. Isn’t it enough to justify the provision of mental health care because mental illness, like any other health issue, has a detrimental impact on a patient’s quality of life?

The issue of misunderstanding the motive behind health care provision extends beyond mental health. Debates surrounding drug addiction, alcohol consumption and obesity are dominated entirely by economics; how much money the UK economy could save, the increased tax revenue if drug addicts could return to work, and by how many days the British workforce lose to back pain. Of course economics are important – the NHS is after all a state funded organisation, but it is essential to remember that behind every statistic is an individual. As the Hippocratic Oath states, it is the health of patients that is a doctor’s ‘first concern’. Hence, the wellbeing of patients should be enough to legitimise healthcare provision – without needing to rely on some fabricated threat to society. If the Sun really were dedicated to mental health, they would’ve realised this long ago.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Janine says:

    “Mental health care is still seen by many as a means of protecting society”. BUT, altho sad, it is truth that mental illness can be a danger to society too. You fail to acknowledge this!!


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