Leading Article: We avoid taking mental illness seriously at our own peril

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IT IS impossible for us to understand the unprovoked atrocity that took place at St Andrew's Church in Thornton Heath this week. A place of worship was invaded by a man who inflicted what one surgeon described as "the most severe injuries I have ever seen inflicted by one human being on another" - when a man's face was virtually sliced in half. All we can know is that the attack itself was, by any ordinary measure, irrational.

Already we have seen the beginning of a familiar process, whereby fear leads to the stigmatisation of a larger group. Giant front-page photographs proclaim the "Face of church `sword maniac'", and there are knowing references to "deep depression" (thus prejudging a key issue to be determined at trial).

Fear and moral condemnation are rolled together in a single package. The mentally disturbed are seen as "evil" - even when common sense suggests that they are, above all, hapless and dangerous victims of their own illness. We are faced with an unhappy contradiction. On the one hand, there is a demonisation of the mentally ill. On the other hand, the day-to-day problems that they face are largely and shamefully ignored.

The number of those who have been sectioned - committed because they may be a danger to their own safety and that of others - has risen by 70 per cent in recent years. Still there is little sense, however, that much can be done to help the mentally ill and enable them to help themselves. This is not just a problem about which all we can do is shrug our shoulders and despair. The government aims to reduce the number of suicides by one- sixth within the next 10 years; that goal is almost laughably modest.

The Government has announced that it wants to devote special attention to the problems of heart disease, cancer and mental health. pounds 500m of additional resources are to be put into coping with mental health problems over three years. That new emphasis is to be welcomed, as an indication that the problems are taken seriously. But mental health is still regarded as a Cinderella speciality, which gets far too little resources.

Care in the community was a disastrous failure in that it encouraged a kind of laissez-faire method of dealing with the mentally ill. Admittedly, lethal attacks by the mentally disturbed are mercifully rare. When they do occur, however, all too often it turns out that something might have been done if there had been intervention at an earlier stage. A survey by the mental health charity Sane suggested that half of all lethal attacks were preceded by warnings from family and friends that went unheeded; in a third of the cases, the person had sought medical help.

Those who commit acts of violence are only the tip of a larger iceberg. About 300,000 in Britain have severe enough problems to require treatment every year. But only horrific events suddenly kick the system into frenzied action. It is as though we were to ignore all warning signs of heart disease until the first massive heart attack.

Support, let alone treatment, is often unavailable. Society must be willing to see mental illness as part of a shared problem. Too often, people ignore it unless it blights their own families or explodes in violence. That finally needs to change.