Media: You'd be mad to think you'll get away with it

Glenda Cooper reports on the media's role in maintaining mental health as one of the last taboos
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Nigger, wop, coon - do those words offend you? Of course. Loony, mong, nutter - do those? Unlikely, you probably use them every day. A hard-hitting campaign was launched last week to make people realise just how offensive such words can be.

Mental health is one of the last taboos, its supporting charities claimed at a conference last week, despite the fact one in four of us will suffer mental illness. While no-one would think they could get away with homophobia, sexism or racism, those who suffer mental illness are routinely discriminated against in the workplace, in social situations, in the local community.

If anyone doubts there is stigma, listen to one man, diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. He told the charity MIND that whenever he was truthful about his stay in a psychiatric hospital he was never accepted for a job. On two occasions he lied and said the gap in his employment was due to being in prison. He was accepted for the first and shortlisted for the second.

Mental health charities feel that a lot of the blame for stigma is down to the media. A report last year by the Health Education Authority, Making Headlines, found that 46 per cent of all press coverage was about crime, harm to others and self-harm with both broadsheet and tabloids making a clear link between mental illness, criminality and violence. There is a whole host of pejorative words employed to describe mental health patients: nutters, psychos, fiends, beasts - the sort of words if they were racist or sexist wouldn't get near a paper.

Common headlines included "Don't Make Us Mad: Nutters in Beef Boycott" from the Daily Star, a story about how patients at Ashworth Special Hospital were refusing to eat beef because of fears over CJD, or The Sun's "We'll Lock Up 5,000 Psychos" about a reverse in care in the community policy. Not that tabloids are the only sinners; the broadsheets come up trumps as well.

As Dr Mark Salter, a psychiatrist who works in one of the most deprived areas of London pointed out, in anthropological terms we fear mental illness because we see it as irrational, difficult to control, the dark side we've never conquered. Using words like "moron" or "mong" is a way of keeping people under control

But journalists who cover the thorny issue of mental health can end up feeling they are got at whatever they do. The day when I nearly gave up was after I'd written a very positive piece about a molecular biologist who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but had learned to deal with life and keep her job and marriage intact. Naively, I thought everyone would be thrilled.

Shortly after, I received two letters complaining in the story I had used the term "schizophrenic" rather than "person with schizophrenia". Grinding my teeth, I thought I might have just as well churned a "mad schizo axeman" story as long as I'd used the correct word.

There is a need for more positive stories in the media. They can be a success - witness EastEnders' positive treatment of schizophrenia. Stephen Fry's admission of suicidal thoughts reportedly helped others near the edge. There are more - although not enough - stories of how people have learned to cope with depression or other mental illnesses.

But at the same time, the wish that some organisations seem to have that we would somehow censor things that show up flaws in Care in the Community is ridiculous. "Why do you always mention someone's diagnosis?" complained one representative at the media forum last week. "You never say a diabetic murdered so-and-so, do you?"

Well, true. But mentioning the diagnosis, if lack of care or breakdowns in treatment led to a tragedy, is a valid thing to do. Take the case of Stephen Laudat, who stabbed a fellow patient at a daycare centre 82 times. The inquiry into the case concluded there had been a catalogue of "missed opportunities" and "barely adequate care". Or Martin Mursell, who killed his stepfather and attempted to kill his mother. She had repeatedly warned social services about her son but her pleas "fell on deaf ears". When Care in the Community doesn't work we need to say so.

But we do have to be careful that it remains valid. In the past, people used to routinely mention skin colour in crime stories, usually of the "Black man kills..." type. It was of absolutely no value whatsoever to the story, but it took a long time to rid papers of that ingrained racism (I'm not sure it's completely gone now). And the same was true when HIV/Aids first appeared - all those gay plague stories. It may seem unthinkable, but I'm sure that those writers then would have felt equally aggrieved if accused of racism or homophobia. It doesn't stop it happening.

There is still a long way to go. As headlines continue to be the most frequent offenders, one editor pointed out to the forum that it's very difficult to fit long words like "person diagnosed with schizophrenia" ("schizophrenic" is not an approved word) into three lines each with seven characters. Well, that's not good enough anymore. Can you imagine justifying the use of the word "nigger" in a headline because "African-American" is too long? No, I can't either.

Glenda Cooper was the 1997 runner-up MIND Journalist of the Year