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Tackling stigma

11 October 2013

WORLD Mental Health Week is seldom noted by The Sun, but this week the newspaper made an exception, a front-page headline: "1200 killed by mental patients". There has been debate about how this figure was arrived at, said by some to be 65 per cent higher than reality. Also, giving a total for the past ten years obscured the fact that deaths caused by those who had received or sought psychiatric care have been reducing. The Sun gives the average for the decade as 122 a year, but the provisional total for 2011 was 46. The text of the Sun article emphasises lack of mental-health provision, suggesting that perpetrators and victims alike were let down by the increasingly threadbare system. The overall effect, however, reinforces the false distinction between the sane and the homicidal, making all "mental patients" out to be dangerous to others. Had The Sun wished to point out the failings of the system in a more sympathetic and, we would argue, a more dramatic way, it might have used the figures buried inside for suicides among the mentally ill: 1333 in 2011 alone.

Definitions are, of course, significant. To kill oneself or another is seldom a sane act. The key message, however, from both The Sun and its critics is that support for those suffering from mental illness, never adequate, is increasingly overstretched. The Sun talks about "the system", but this is shorthand for the people who work in the care system. It is they who are overstretched. Manchester University, who provided The Sun with its statistics, also published the results of a survey of 3000 GPs last month. It suggested that 8.9 per cent of doctors under 50 expected to give up direct patient care within the next five years. The figures make a useful comparison with the clergy, 492 of whom were surveyed for St Luke's Healthcare. Here, 8.1 per cent had considered giving up their ministry in the Church "very frequently" or "often". It is a truism that those in the caring professions are able to care for others because they share many of their vulnerabilities. Both GPs and clerics are prey to stress-related illnesses, such as depression and hypochondria. When these develop, the care they can give to others is naturally compromised.

Mental illness is too prevalent to be dealt with adequately by the medical profession. Medication has its uses, vital in some cases, but there is a need, too, for better preventative practices, a sort of mental hygiene, that could be learned by the general public, one in four of whom will be affected by a psychological disorder in their lives. Ideally, these would be a combination of meditative, pastoral, and sacramental experiences. Is it too far-fetched to see churches function as spiritual gyms, promoting mental health and fighting the stigma encouraged by sensationalist reporting?

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