By Kim Moore, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health

Statistics published earlier this month outlining the number of homicides carried out by people with mental illnesses, have hit the headlines in local and national media.  A loud sense of outrage is encouraged by some sections of the media, whose emotive terms and poignant stories work to vilify people with mental health problems. Some writers have sought to challenge the facts within the story, however there is a risk that while our attention is re-focused onto the issue of mental health, our gaze is too narrow.

When I think about how people with severe mental health problems struggle to get the help they need, I am outraged.  That the experience of many with mental health problems leads to suicide and homicide highlights exactly why we should feel a sense of righteous anger for everyone affected. This extends to all of the families – both those of the victims and those of the perpetrators. But we need to do more than feel incensed about statistics like these, and instead look to the underlying issues that contribute to such events.  Can we really blame the individuals when the system has been significantly under-resourced and must manage the expected 8 per cent budget savings demanded in 2015?  When we rely on families to become co-therapists, but must also balance the rights of the individual, there seems to be a very fine ethical line that mental health services need to tread between personal rights and public safety.

But let’s look at the statistics – the ONS (2016) report an average of 550 homicides per year in England and Wales, a figure that seems considerable, yet we are asked to be more incensed at the 423 mental health homicides that occurred over the past seven years. It is absolutely right to feel angry about any loss of life, and particularly those that could be seen as preventable.

Any discussion on homicide is distressing; but when it is argued that those committed by people with mental health problems are more outrageous than any other, we risk labelling all mental health patients as ‘dangerous’ people who need to be locked away for the public safety.  This rather Victorian view does not represent the majority of people who experience mental illnesses and we run the risk of reinvigorating the social stigmas that have perpetuated in the public mind about mental illnesses.  People are often surprised by statistics which show that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. But this is a complex and multi-faceted topic which takes in an array of conditions beyond the outdated, stigmatised representation of mental illness and will affect a large portion of the population.

So while this story grabs our attention and provokes anger we could, and should, use this sense of righteous indignation to fight for a re-investment in mental health services and a re-invigoration of inclusive services that protect the rights of the individual and show respect for the families who work with us.

So does a story like this present an opportunity? Perhaps it does. World Mental Health Day (October 10) is rapidly approaching – an international event designed to raise public awareness of mental health and mental distress. This year’s focus is on mental health first aid – highlighting how we can learn to identify and support those who may be developing a mental health issue, in the same way we learn physical first aid. So maybe in light of the outrage generated by this story, we have the chance to redress the balance by considering the role we, as the public, can play in supporting people who experience mental distress and mental illness.

This could be the perfect opportunity for us to look deeper than the portrayal found in negative headlines and to better understand the complexities of mental health. So re-examine your knowledge. Look into how the many thousands of people in the United Kingdom who experience mental distress or ill health can, and do, manage their illnesses.  Celebrate the collaboration of different organisations – from mental health charities and self-help groups, to national and multinational corporations – who are taking on the mental health agenda and promoting mental health support. Challenge your views on mental health and drop in to one of the World Mental Health Day events near you, and help them in celebrating the everyday journeys to recovery by considering what is possible. With a better public understanding of mental health, we might have a better chance of achieving the investment and support our services need in order to give those affected the best possible care.