Mentally ill `guilty of fewer murders'

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THE NUMBER of murders committed by the mentally ill has fallen in the past 40 years despite public fears to the contrary, leading psychiatrists said yesterday.

An analysis of Home Office statistics appeared to challenge the basis of the Government's plans to lock away more people with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

After the case of double murderer Michael Stone, who had a personality disorder, Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, said caring for the mentally ill in the community had failed to deal effectively with the most severe cases. He proposed a tougher approach. Stone was given life sentences last October at Maidstone Crown Crown for the killing of mother and daughter Lin and Megan Russell in Kent. He also left for dead Josie Russell, then aged nine.

Professors Pamela Taylor and John Gunn of the Institute of Psychiatry in London said there was no proof that care in the community had failed. According to their analysis of official statistics the number of murders committed by the mentally ill had halved from 121 in 1979 to 60 in 1995, the last year of available figures. They had fallen by 3 per cent a year since 1957.

Professor Gunn said drunkenness and drugs were a bigger factor than schizophrenia in killings. The professors appealed for people with mental illness not to be stigmatised as most posed no risk to others.

Professor Taylor said: "A homicide is an appalling tragedy for all directly concerned, but single cases, however shocking and publicised, do not constitute evidence for failure of a national system of care, nor for far-reaching changes in legislation and service delivery.

"Confining people with a mental illness to hospital to save 40 or so lives would be analogous to abolishing private motoring to prevent the 4,000 or so road deaths."

In a paper published yesterday in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the professors said tackling substance misuse or personality disorder was "the most important challenge for the development of mental health services".

Professor Robert Kendell, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said it was nonsensical to conclude there would be no homicides if psychiatry services and social services were working properly .

Professors Taylor and Gunn criticised organisations such as the Zito Trust, set up by Jayne Zito after her husband was murdered by a schizophrenic, to influence mental health policy.

Michael Howlett, of the Zito Trust, said the tragedy of 40 to 50 murders a year did require far-reaching reforms in mental health services, although the trust had never said the problem was increasing.

"The Zito Trust supports the Government's mental health strategy and looks forward to new legislation and improved services so that those who suffer from mental disorders of all kinds can live safely in the community, knowing they will get help as and when they need it," he added.