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31st October 2013

‘Mental patient’ stigmas and Psycho-ward killers

With major brands Tesco, Asda and The Sun mired in controversy over their treatment of mental health issues, Lauren Wills asks why mental health patients are still treated as an anomally in society today

Some may have thought the recent headline ‘1200 Killed by Mental Patients’ was your average twisted output from The Sun. However, combined with the news of Asda and Tesco selling and then withdrawing their ‘mental patient’ and ‘psycho ward’ Halloween costumes, the wider issue of the stigma surrounding individuals with mental health problems has arisen.
Whilst it is encouraging that Asda and Tesco have realised they have caused offence and subsequently withdrawn their offensive costumes, has the controversial episode brought to light a deeper issue, rooted in our ideologies about mental illness? During a recent BBC interview, Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind asked the obvious question concerning how the costumes actually got into stores in the first place, describing them as ‘crude and extraordinary’.
Indeed, these costumes could fuel individuals’ already worrying perceptions of the realities of mental illness. The costumes themselves were clearly designed with a misperception in mind. Statistically, 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. Whilst Asda and Tesco have been portraying a particularly negative, violent image of mental health patients through the sale of their Halloween costumes, statistics prove that conditions such as mixed anxiety and depression are actually awfully common amongst individuals in the United Kingdom. It is reassuring that both Asda and Tesco, alongside withdrawing these particular halloween costumes, are making donations to Mind, a mental health charity dedicated to giving advice to and supporting those with mental illness, ensuring they do not have to face their problem alone.
However, for The Sun to seemingly fuel the stigma in its headline so soon after the costume incident seems callous. Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change commented “It’s incredibly disappointing to see a leading newspaper splash with such a sensational and damaging headline”. Despite the content of the article being more balanced than its title, the headline infuriated mental health campaigners. The article emphasises the power of the media to twist the facts – however small they may be – to give a particular impression or viewpoint to the reader, particularly as many will see the headline but not buy or read the newspaper. Paul Burstow MP added a valid, key point to the discussion – “the truth is people with mental health problems are more likely to be victims of crime, NOT perpetrators of crime”.
It is obvious that the stigma around mental health patients has been prominent at least since the 1990s when headlines such as ‘mad psycho killers’ abounded. It is within the media’s power to take certain facts and manipulate readers into believing something contrary to the truth, hence the contrast of these headlines with what we find when we actually look at official mental health statistics. According to the Mental Health Foundation, people with mental health problems say that the “social stigma attached to mental ill health and the discrimination they experience can make their difficulties worse and make it harder to recover”. Indeed, in light of this evidence, perhaps we should be devoting more time to the prevention of mental illness, giving victims of the illness the help they need, rather than creating a stigma around them.
Students are one of the demographics in the population where mental health issues flourish. Indeed, the cultural adjustments required of international students only exacerbate the stressful conditions already experienced by the wider student population. It is vital that there is no fear of stigma amongst students when this stress turns into a deeper issue, requiring intervention from an outside source so that they seek this before any problems get worse. Ultimately, an unaddressed mental health problem can unnecessarily ruin lives.
Anyone can be subject to mental health issues and Manchester offers various different methods of help to people who believe they may need it. The university provides a confidential counseling service on the fifth floor of Crawford House for all students. The Union also has a Mental Health campaign, which is a student-led group that aims to promote good mental health and wellbeing throughout campus and beyond. The group is fairly new and aims to hold a series of events throughout the term, including film nights.

If you’d like to find out more, visit
The University of Manchester’s counselling service is open 5 days a week and appointments can be booked by calling 0161 275 2864.

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