The real truth about murder and Britain's mentally ill

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mental health campaigners are furious over what they say is the demonisation of people with psychiatric problems after they were portrayed as violent and potentially murderous.

Last week, a report by Professor Louis Appleby, the Government's mental health tsar, said 52 people a year - one a week - were murdered by someone suffering from mental illness.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: "The reality is that the overall rate of homicide by mentally ill people hasn't gone up for a long time. There is a misconception that [violence] is the fault of care in the community." Mental health campaigners cite research from by the Department of Health which shows that people are 50 times more likely to be attacked by a drunk than a mentally ill person

They say Professor Appleby's report also said the number of strangers killed by mental health sufferers had not changed in 50 years.

A separate study, from the Institute of Psychiatry at the Royal Free Hospital and University College London, reveals that one in eight Britons admit to being involved in violence in the past five years. More than 40 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women admitted to being violent.

"Despite public concern, the risks of violence from people with severe mental illness were very low," say the researchers. "Violence attributable to people screening positive for psychotic illness had almost negligible impact on the overall level of violence despite public concern."

Professor Jeremy Coid, who led the study reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, said: "The highest percentage of incidents were explained by individuals engaging in hazardous drinking, followed by drug misuse."

Andy Bell, chief executive of the Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of 78 campaigning organisations, added: "The degree to which the [danger posed by mental health patients] has been overstated is considerable. There has been a sea-change in mental health services over the past 50 years. This is the same rate as when we had asylums, or no care at all."

And Marjorie Wallace of Sane said an individual is in far more danger of being killed by a drunk driver than someone with a mental illness. But Professor Appleby has accused charities of "scaremongering" and "needlessly frightening" patients in their opposition to the Government's Mental Health Bill, which will force some patients to take medication and increase powers of detention.

He said: "It wasn't that the media distorted the findings. The figures are not helpful to people who say there is nothing we can do." He added that high-profile cases, such as those of John Barnett, do more to stigmatise the mentally ill than discussing the issue.

"We're aware this subject can play badly for the lives of sufferers of mental illness. But what really plays badly is if we do nothing.Some of the scaremongering shouldn't have happened. I think the methods being used have frightened patients needlessly. Everyone is trying to do the right thing for patients and sometimes that means not accepting their refusal to have treatment."

John Barnett stabbed retired banker Denis Finnegan to death in a London park in 2004. The day before, he fled from a hospital after being allowed a walk in the grounds, a decision described as "seriously flawed" by an inquiry.

Rough Justice: 27 years in jail after 'false confession'

Stephen Downing was freed from prison in 2002 after serving 27 years for the murder of typist Wendy Sewell in Bakewell, Derbyshire in 1973. At the time, he was 17 but was judged to have a mental age of 11. Ms Sewell, 22, was bludgeoned to death with a pick-axe handle in the cemetery where Downing worked as a groundsman.

He told police he found her covered in blood. Detectives, however, refused to believe him and questioned him for eight hours without a lawyer. Eventually he admitted the attack and signed a confession, which included a sexual assault that never happened.

But Downing could barely read or write and the confession was said by campaigners to use words he would not know the meaning of. He retracted the confession and said it had been written for him. A palm-print was found on the murder weapon that belonged to neither Downing nor Wendy Sewell.

Despite this it took a jury just one hour to convict him. He was eventually released after a six-year campaign led by the Matlock Mercury newspaper.

Mental health campaigners say the treatment he received from the police was particularly bad because of his mental problems.

Andrew Johnson