In this guest blog, Robert, a mental health campaigner who has bipolar disorder, condemns the lack of coverage by the mainstream media on the latest statistics on suicides by those in contact with mental health services.
A very nice press officer from Mind called me on Tuesday evening [July 21]. At first I thought I’d misheard what she said. It sounded so fantastical: “There’s been a 29% rise in suicides among men”, according to an embargoed press release.
I knew this would be the latest fun-packed report from Louis Appleby’s National Confidential Inquiry into Homicides and Suicides. I normally worry that it will generate media heat on the subject of ‘marauding and murderous mental patients’ running amok, so to speak.
But I was so astonished by the 29% statistic; I repeated back to her what I heard to double check. I was not corrected. But I still couldn’t believe the figures. I felt a bit silly telling a colleague later, saying “I must have got it wrong – I must have.”
This increase by nearly a third was, it turned out, in suicides among men being treated for mental health problems in 2013 compared to a low point in 2006. This year was a turning point when the stats started climbing upwards after a fall over several previous years – the consensus is recession was the cause.
Even more startling was the 73% rise in male patients from the age group of 45 to 54. It sounds that some of this rise may be down to the fact that more people – including suicidal men – are being seen by mental health services, which is in itself a good thing, of course.
There was one other thing I found amazing – the media’s general lack of concern about these headline facts. I Googled ‘suicide’ the follow morning and found something on the Guardian and BBC online, but that was it. No-one was bothered at, say, The Telegraph or the Daily Mail, unsurprisingly, and even the Independent wasn’t too fussed. It was engrossed in more uplifting matters, like the Labour leadership contest.
Apparently suicide isn’t interesting if it’s among middle-aged men on the books of their local community mental health team. But what was I thinking? Had I taken leave of my senses? Of course journalists are not going to be unduly concerned by people like me killing themselves.
So why was I surprised? Perhaps I’ve been too seduced by my own and others’ rhetoric about the improvement in public and media understanding of mental illness. Issues like patients being detained in police cells, an explosion of distress among young people and appalling crisis care have been in the headlines recently and deservedly so. But psychiatric patients killing themselves has never, sadly, been of great interest.
Let’s hope the NHS, however, does pay heed to the 1,469 patients – male and female – who lost their lives in a dark place of hopelessness and desperation, while under its care. The report urges services to take preventative steps. These include very, very basic things like keeping in contact with patients, ensuring courses of treatment are completed and offering talking therapies.
Importantly, it stresses at-risk patients should not be allowed to slip through the net of crisis resolution and home treatment teams, which appear to be a significant cause of the growing numbers of deaths. Today, more patients are dying in these services than on wards.
There was one silver lining to this research. There wasn’t an outcry and almighty media hoo-hah this time about the latest ‘shocking’ figures about homicide by ‘crazed, mental patients’. Two years ago The Sun splashed on ‘Shock 10-year death toll exposes care crisis – 1,200 killed by mental patients.’ Not very helpful and not news. The historic figures had been known for ages and have been consistently falling for many years.
But these homicide figures remain an uncomfortable truth to communicate. It is reasonable to point out that people with mental health problems are more often the target of violence and many more, as we know, die from suicide. The statistical reality, however, is there is a complex association between violence and mental illness. But it’s families, husbands, wives and children who are tragically nearly always the victims. The tabloid fantasy of the ‘madman’ randomly killing someone is, thankfully, very, very rare. I’m glad that spectre of the ‘mad axe-man’ running amok wasn’t conjured up again this week.
About the author
Robert, who has bipolar disorder, is a mental health campaigner, works for a mental health trust and is a trustee of Mind