If you can cast your mind back to the gloomy mist of last September, you might remember that some berk at Asda thought it’d be a good idea to sell a ‘mental patient’ Halloween costume. The costume featured a bloodstained lab coat and a mask with a devilish expression and untamed wiry grey hair, but the cheery on top was that it was accessorised with a meat cleaver. Thanks Asda, we almost forgot that anyone suffering a mental condition constantly carries around a large knife and a menacing expression. When people wised up to Asda’s act of idiocy, they withdrew the costume from sale and apologised for the mistake. There’s a silver lining to the story though, Asda then remorsefully donated £25,000 to the mental health charity Mind.
But it’s not just supermarkets that think people with mental illnesses are dangerous, knife wielding individuals. The media has played a huge role in portraying people with mental conditions in the same way. Back in 2003, former British professional boxer Frank Bruno was admitted to a psychiatric hospital following a nervous breakdown. On the following day, the Sun tastelessly shared the headline ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’ which served as not only an insult to Frank Bruno, but to the hundreds of thousands of those suffering with mental health disorders. Within hours the newspaper had received thousands of complaints against the headline and it was reported that many shops had actually ripped off the front page of the publication to stop the offence spreading any further.
Even though you’d assume they’d have learnt their lesson after the Bruno fiasco, last year the Sun featured the front-page headline ‘1,200 killed by mental patients’. Imagine reading that after you’ve been diagnosed with depression or bi-polar. Not only do you have a mental health disorder, but you’re also a danger to society. Fan-bloody-tastic! And was there any truth in the Sun’s article? Not surprisingly, the answer is a resounding no. A survey done by the University of Manchester in July 2013 revealed that the Sun’s description of ‘patients’ meant anyone who had been in contact with mental health services in the 12 months prior to the offence and not actual ‘inpatients’ being cared for on mental illness wards. When you compare the figures of how many murders there are yearly, and how many are committed by people with a mental disorder – it appears as though we should probably be more scared of people that don’t have a mental problem than those that do. Anyone with a mental health disorder is far more likely to harm themselves than somebody else, but there’s no mention of that in the offending article. That’s not nearly sensationalist enough for The Sun.
The media’s integration of the word’s ‘bonkers’ and ‘crazy’ or other words of that nature into our every day vernacular can make people with mental health problems feel ashamed and isolated. Why would you tell your mates about your depression if they will then assume that you’re a live wire, at risk of a violent breakdown at any moment?
It’s easy to say that the media has little or no influence on people that have more than two brain cells, but the results of a survey conducted to document the public’s reaction to mental health show that they’re a more influential body than you’d think. A survey conducted by the NHS in 2011 documented the reactions of 1,741 adults to a range of scenarios involving mental health. As many as 1 in 5 said ‘anyone with a history of mental problems should be excluded from taking public office.’ So, if you were thinking of running for Prime Minister but have a mental health condition- think again! Then 1 in 10 concluded that it was ‘frightening to think of people with mental problems living in residential neighbourhoods.’ So after your dreams of being in parliament have been dashed, you better pack your bags and immigrate to the depths of the countryside, or a secret underground bunker. Lastly, the survey discovered that 1 in 10 people said that ‘a woman would be foolish to marry a man who has suffered from a mental illness.’ Brilliant, so you now have no hope of becoming an MP, living in a populated area or getting married!
You could say that Britain has come a considerable way since the days where you’d be locked up in an asylum if you happen to have low days, or, god forbid, happen to be a menstruating woman, and thankfully we hear phrases such as ‘we should cart you off to the loony bin’ less and less. But perhaps we haven’t come as far as we thought, with many people still dividing the general public into ‘the normals’ and ‘the crazies’ and we still often talk about mental illness like it’s leprosy or something to be ashamed of. When you realise that one in four of us will experience a mental disorder at some point in our lives, this imagined separation is nothing more than a fallacy.