As author Matt Haig, who has a history of severe depression, pointed out this week, saying that someone has ‘mental health issues’ is like saying they have ‘health issues’ – vague to the point of meaningless.
Mental ill-health ranges widely over human experience. Eating disorders, anxiety, depression. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder. Social anxiety, agoraphobia, post-natal depression. Each brings its own challenges, its own treatment, its own symptoms.
But ‘mental health issues’ is a phrase that is all too often used as an insinuation, especially when attached to someone suspected of a crime of violence. In the last week, it’s been used in relation to the attack on LGBT people in Orlando, and the killing of MP Jo Cox. Mental health issues were also cited after the Lufthansa airplane crash last year, thought to have been caused by the co-pilot.
The implication is clear. People with mental health issues can’t be trusted, aren’t rational, have no control over their behaviour. It’s a shrug of the shoulders, a ‘what can you do?’, a suggestion that there’s no point trying to understand.
I’ve had ‘mental health issues’ of my own – a bout of depression three years ago. It was relatively mild and I was lucky enough to recover quickly. Afterwards, I started to learn how many of my friends, acquaintances and family had also struggled with mental illness at some point in their lives. It’s a bigger club than you’d think – 1 in 4 of us, according to the charity Mind.
At no stage did I consider harming anyone except myself. And that’s the sad truth of mental illness. The vast majority of homicides and violent crimes are committed by people with no mental illness. But 9 out of 10 people who take their own lives are experiencing mental distress. People with mental ill-health are also more likely to be the victims of violence.*
This last, dreadful week, I have discovered that two friends had poor mental health. Discovered, because as a friendly acquaintance rather than a close friend, I had no idea. One was a former colleague; one of those people who you’d always be pleased to learn was joining your team – a lovely, friendly, sensible, down-to-earth man. The other was a bundle of energy, an impressive local campaigner for many good causes, hard-working, passionate and generous.
One died by suicide after a long struggle, I now know, with mental illness. The other, who had become vulnerable in recent weeks, has gone missing (for more about the ongoing search for Robert Gibson, please see Crystal Palace Transition Town FB page).
Their sad stories are as different from each other as they are from mine. And utterly different from the stories bandied about ‘explaining’ violent behaviour with reference to mental health issues. We don’t usually include the suspect’s health in a crime story – when did you last see a news story that said: ‘The suspect, who had a history of athlete’s foot, is armed and dangerous’?
Which is why we, as journalists, need to be so careful when using the phrase as a catch-all explanation. It’s distressing enough to have a mental illness, without people implying that this might make you a violent criminal. Our readers are also vulnerable to those mental health issues we describe, as are our colleagues and even, perhaps, ourselves.
Time to Change campaign.