Michael Williams: Readers' editor

The path to mental health is paved with prejudice
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The Independent Online

Not long it ago it was a taboo hardly mentioned in the papers at all, let alone the page one splash. Yet there it was last week, making the headlines as the main story in 'The Independent' and in many other newspapers: the "Big D" was big news, as a major scientific study concluded that depression could not be cured by pills alone.

The debate in this office and among our readers has been huge. Is Prozac a waste of money? Are the drug companies, as our own health editor Jeremy Laurance asked on Wednesday's front page, pulling the wool over the eyes of the public?

What a contrast to 20 years ago when we journalists would be reluctant to touch the subject at all, leaving the one in six of our readers who experience mental illness at some time to suffer alone. These days, thanks to initiatives such as 'The Independent on Sunday' mental health campaign, we all think we know about bipolar disorder, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviour and the rest. We share the grief of Stephen Fry when he talks about his depression on TV. Even "Dear Deirdre" in 'The Sun' dishes out regular advice to people suffering from mental illness alongside the legendary "love rats".

We've done enough, haven't we? Yet a new report on the way the press deals with the subject tells a different story.

Most journalists have cleaned up their act since 'The Sun' labelled the boxer Frank Bruno "bonkers". But other stereotypes are still promoted more subtly, particularly the one that people with a mental health problem are likely to attack a member of the public at random.

In fact, random attacks by people with mental illness account for less than 1 per cent of the 600 homicides every year in England and Wales. And I'm ashamed to say that, behind the scenes, phrases more suited to retro TV cop DCI Gene Hunt – "nutter", "loon" and "schizo" – can still be heard in newsrooms across the land.

It is hardly surprising that these blinkered attitudes are still reflected by reporters. Most coverage of the recent suicides among young people in Bridgend, which I wrote about two weeks ago, has been little short of disgraceful, and the Press Complaints Commission too slow in reining in the many breaches of its code of practice. And when the sad former England footballer Paul Gascoigne was sectioned under the Mental Health Act last month, some journalists couldn't help reverting to sniggers. 'The Daily Telegraph' was worst, picturing Gascoigne with a traffic cone over his head, as though he were in some kind of Elizabethan bedlam. We've all clearly still got a long way to go.

* Stylebook corner: A plaintive note from reader Malcolm Morrison who points out that we should have described the National Union of Public Employees as NUPE, not Nupe, since it is an acronym. Our simple rule is that if the initial letters of a union or other organisation's name forms a pronounceable word in its own right (like Nupe, generally pronounced Newpee) then it is upper and lower case. But the Card Setting Machine Tenters Society remains the plain old CSMTS. See you next week – TTFN!

Message Board: Could rationing end childhood obesity?

Janet Street-Porter's proposal to tackle the nation's weight problem head-on was meat and drink to bloggers, who joined the debate:

Gareth Thomas

We could also start cooking with powdered egg again, wear gas masks and long, grey macs, watch endless repeats of 'Brief Encounter' and hide under the stairs with a candle at the sound of a pre-arranged alarm.

Kim

Do you really want to cut childhood obesity? Start a war. This will ensure that more women stay at home to look after the kids and cook them proper food. People will respect their elders. And supply routes for food will be cut.

Carin

Obviously rationing wouldn't work – however, I do think that folk like Nigella Lawson might want to think twice before pouring vats of sugar, cream and butter into all their recipes.

David

My father's memories of rationing were of perpetual hunger. And the Cubans I spoke to last year were not enthusiastic about it. But yes, done properly, it's good for the health.

Scott

A return to rationing will probably not happen but at least JSP recognises the need for action – radical action given the apathy of successive governments who would do nothing if they think it would lose a single vote.

Noah

This idea is like Jonathan Swift's satirical essay on easing hunger by eating babies. Education, and integrity in the food "industry", are the solution. The poor in other countries eat sensibly. We just don't understand food here.

Lizcreek

Oh please! Do we really want the Government to control yet another part of our lives? The answer lies with food companies prepared to poison the nation's children for profits. Ration them.

Phoebe

Children have always been drawn to sweets – but they used to walk miles every day. The combustion engine is as much to blame as foolish eating habits for obesity.

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