Errol Francis: Damaging stereotypes created by the media make it hard to get help

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The Independent Online

It might be unusual for a celebrity such as Frank Bruno to be admitted to a state psychiatric hospital under the Mental Health Act, but it is not at all unusual for Afro-Caribbean men. Until now that aspect of Bruno's case has been strangely missing from all the media coverage of the case.

With the case of Frank Bruno, there appears to have been a long, obvious trail leading to the current breakdown in his mental health. During the divorce proceedings from his wife Laura it was alleged that she had become afraid of him and that his behaviour was bizarre. At the time he admitted that he was being treated for depression with medication but strenuously denied that he had become violent or threatening.

The picture of a depressed man is reinforced by reports that he has been unable to cope with both the financial and emotional consequences of the divorce from his wife of 11 years. It has also been said that Bruno received psychiatric treatment at a private hospital some time before the current crisis. In other words this is someone who appears to acknowledge that he has problems yet has difficulty in finding ways of addressing them.

In this Frank Bruno's experience is very similar to many black men who exhibit all the hallmarks of depression and anxiety yet do not receive treatment until a crisis is reached. At that point they are described as "bonkers" - in much the same way as Bruno was described in an early edition (left) of The Sun last week.

Even the way Bruno was admitted to hospital is typical of the treatment of black men - taken in an ambulance under the Mental Health Act when there appeared to be no clear evidence that he was actually a danger to himself or other people.

Once Bruno was is in hospital, police were called to deal with a violent confrontation between the former boxer and another patient. Again, black men are more likely to be deemed violent while in hospital and to receive medication or be secluded. They are also over-represented in deaths in hospital as a result of control and restraint or emergency medication.

We can only hope that Frank Bruno's public status will ensure that he receives the treatment he requires and that he is given access to treatments other than medication and physical restraint, such as counselling or psychotherapy. It is well known that black men are less likely to be given access to these treatment options. We also hope that his unfortunate experience will draw attention to the similar plight affecting many others.

Sadly, the media coverage of Bruno's case so far has sensationalised recent events. While much of it has been sympathetic, it has done nothing whatsoever to undermine the damaging stereotypes that surround black people with mental illnesses and make it so hard for them to get the support they need.

The writer is manager of the black mental health project at the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health