Coverage of stabbing feeds myths about 'madness', Flaws in Clarke's house arrest scheme and others

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Sensational coverage of stabbing feeds myths about 'madness'

Sensational coverage of stabbing feeds myths about 'madness'

Sir: As a now thankfully recovered ex-user of the British mental health services, may I express my dismay at the prominent media coverage given to the case of the fatal stabbing of a member of the public by a "paranoid schizophrenic"?

The mental health authorities appear to have been negligent in allowing this patient unsupervised movement, given his violent history, and his current mental state. The high profiling of a case such as this may well cause widespread and unnecessary feelings of panic.

Random deaths caused by those with mental health problems account for fewer than one in 1.5m deaths of the population. Criminal murder accounts for many more.

The fear of "madness" is often largely based on ignorance. This in turn is nurtured cruelly by the popular press. Those with mental health problems are far more likely to endanger their own lives than those of others. Mental health problems arise often out of intolerable stresses which are placed on individuals today. Trauma during childhood can predispose a person to later emotional disturbance; mental health problems can arise also out of bereavement, emotional rejection, divorce, single parenthood, job losses ... the list goes on.

To have a mental illness is to experience one of the most painful and isolating traumas known to man. And yet the sensational nature of some press coverage does nothing to assist those who campaign to dispel the myths which surround mental illness. Because of this, vulnerable individuals who are suffering from mental illness through no fault of their own feel shunned, experiencing rejection from society instead of kindness and understanding.

Timperley, Cheshire

Sir: As a practising GP I was astounded at the rather unbalanced response of the media to the recent arrest of psychiatric patient John Barrett and the resulting criticism of psychiatric services.

Psychiatry is an extremely demanding speciality and unlike other fields of medicine, lacks good evidence-based quantifiable criteria to assess risk. Having been involved in sectioning several patients, I can safely state it is not a straightforward process, and rightly so. Depriving someone of their civil liberties should not be easy.

The media does not seem to appreciate that a patient cannot be "sectioned" under the mental health act if they agree to a voluntary admission to hospital. As a voluntary patient they are free to self discharge, as is any other voluntary patient. They could only be detained against their will if they were then deemed "sectionable".

A patient with homicidal thoughts and reasonable insight may well be very guarded about his intentions when talking to medical staff, making it difficult to build a case for detaining them against their will. Community psychiatric services are not perfect, but on the whole they do an excellent job under very difficult circumstances. It is thanks to their dedication there have been so few deaths caused by the mentally ill.

If the media want to examine the behaviour of a group of people who kill many hundreds of innocents every year in the UK, there are far more obvious targets. Speeding motorists immediately spring to mind.

Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire

Flaws in Clarke's house arrest scheme

Sir: Charles Clarke has not thought through the practicalities of house arrest. In a police state, such as Myanmar, it is easy to implement. However, in a country such as Britain, where day-to-day freedoms continue to operate, it will quickly cause political embarrassment.

Firstly, there is the issue of police manpower. In a BBC2 Newsnight interview on 1 February, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, stated that he was comfortable detaining, say 12 allegedly dangerous people, such as the Belmarsh 12. However, if that number were to rise to say 300 (a number Tony Blair has mentioned), then he would have staffing issues.

Allied to this is the issue of cost. The detainee must be provided with meals, reading material, and gainful employment (such as sewing mail bags) or social security benefits. Effectively, a mini-prison regime needs to be established, with none of the economies of scale of a real prison. Needless to say, it is the taxpayer who will be footing the enormous bill.

Rather than preventing terrorism, house arrest will give it a public platform. Supporters of the suspected terrorist will gather outside his home, and will rapidly turn him into a martyr in the media gaze as the days pass.

Moreover, if these people are truly dangerous, why are they being held in an ordinary home, where the risks of them jumping out of the bathroom window to freedom are very high?

Mr Clarke would be far better off putting these suspects on trial and presenting the evidence against them. He could then properly protect the public, avoid political damage to himself and safeguard Britain's reputation as a free country.

High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

Sir: Although Andreas Whittam Smith (Opinion, 28 February) is right to wonder why it is in newspapers that the arguments are made against the pernicious proposals in the Government's Prevention of Terrorism Bill, it is even more alarming that so many MPs are willing to give assent to this legislation, with or without mitigating amendments from the Home Secretary.

However it is not just the Islamic minority or animal rights activists that should fear such developments, but every other minority group in this country including the likes of the Countryside Alliance. During the 1970s the Irish might have been at risk; in the 1980s the poll tax protesters; in the 1990s the animal rights campaigners; and latterly the pro-hunt campaigners. All of these and many others have the potential to become targets for this legislation at the whim of the Home Secretary and the Government of the day and there will be no option for defence against any restrictions placed upon them.

The Government believe through invoking fear, uncertainty and doubt that they can emulate their allies in Australia and the US in securing an election victory, and given the current general air of political apathy in this country they may well be right. However, there is a tipping point beyond which the public will not be pushed and once it becomes evident what these proposals really imply, those MPs who vote in favour of this dreadful legislation will be at the mercy of their constituents in the coming election and rightly so.

Broadstone, Dorset

Sir: Am I to understand that Steve Richards is suggesting we should allow the Government to attack our civil liberties because otherwise their careers might be damaged by a terrorist attack ("If there was a terrorist attack on Britain, who would get the blame", 1 March)?

It was profoundly depressing that no minister resigned after launching an illegal war based on phoney intelligence, thus making Britain a prime terrorist target. But now we learn that there is indeed accountability for Iraq. It is we, the citizens of Britain, who will carry the can, by resigning our hard-won historic freedoms to protect the reputations of proven liars.

London NW1

Sir: Despicable. That is the only word that describes Tony Blair after his latest wild scaremongering allegation that there are hundreds of terrorists here in the UK. I hope his source isn't the same intelligence service he used for the Iraqi WMD rubbish.

I don't know how Blair believes history will remember him, but I suspect it will be as a warmonger who lied to Parliament and the people over Iraq, as an anti-democrat who foisted compulsory ID cards on an unwitting populace, and a thief who stole the soul of the Labour Party and mutated it into a Thatcherist clone. As a result of this latest claim, the man is now even pandering to xenophobic racism and encouraging Islamophobia.

Holyhead, Anglesey

Holiday in Sri Lanka

Sir: During a most enjoyable holiday in tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka, I was impressed by the resilience of the local people . How sad, though, to realise the further damage being caused to the Sri Lankan economy and to its sense of pride by the decline in tourism. All the hotels in which we stayed were three-quarters empty and many of the tours were seriously under-subscribed. Guides we spoke with admitted that their livelihoods had suffered a major blow.

While fully understanding the crisis of conscience which led many tourists to cancel their visits, I would urge anyone considering a holiday there to go ahead. This is certainly what the local people want. Far better than remote charitable giving would be the active presence of tourists providing employment and a boost to the revival of local self-confidence.

Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire

Male violence

Sir: Deborah Orr's article "We need to understand male violence" (1 March) struck a chord with me, especially when she suggested that one of the major problems is the lack of funding for treatment courses for men who perpetrate domestic violence.

My ex-fiancé beat me in an alcohol- and drug-induced rage. Thankfully with the support of my family and friends I have moved on with my life and although I have little contact with my ex, I have forgiven him. The sadness I still have is that I do not believe he had the help he was crying out for and probably still needs. As the perpetrator, he had little sympathy from his family (quite understandable) but when he sought help from his GP they referred him to anger management classes for six weeks. At the end of this he still required more help, which they could not fund.

Why does the Government choose to only fund treating the victim when they could also prevent there being another victim?
Name and address supplied

Refugees' plight

Sir: Thank you for your exposé of the plight of Blerim Mlloja (23 February).

I have worked for many years in the voluntary sector to support refugees and asylum-seekers. I believed that nothing could shock me in the vagaries of Home Office legislation in regard to these unfortunate people. I was wrong.

For three years I have worked with a project to help young (12- to 18-year-old) asylum-seekers and refugees to integrate into a strange culture. They are helped to deal with loneliness and fear and to make use of the educational opportunities available to them. They are cared for by dedicated social workers and volunteers. Having seen these young people grow in confidence and self-esteem and begin to enjoy life - as Blerim in your picture was obviously doing - it is devastating to think that they can be summarily bundled off to countries where they will have little, if any, support.

If the Home Office persists in this appalling and cynical policy, I believe we will have plumbed the depths of political expediency and I will be deeply ashamed of my country

Trunch, Norfolk

Military morality

Sir: All this talk about whether the Army is abiding by the Geneva Convention makes me think that we should ask the same question of the Church of England. Does the Archbishop of Canterbury believe that all people are "equal in dignity and rights" as the Convention states? If he does, why is his church persecuting homosexuals?

Last week the Royal Navy became the first section of the British armed forces to join Stonewall's scheme to promote fair treatment of lesbian, gay and bisexual recruits. Gay and lesbian couples with a registered civil partnership will be able to apply for married quarters, in all armed forces, from the autumn. It is ironic that the military is setting an ethical lead for the Church of England.

London SE15

Man fears dog

Sir: I doubt that Alastair Campbell has a dog phobia (Pandora, 1 March). A phobia is an irrational fear of something out of proportion to the danger it presents, and frequently inconsistent with the sufferer's general character. For instance, I once read of a lion tamer who was terrified of mice. The dogs which chase Mr Campbell when he is out running could possibly do him some damage, so any apprehension is rational. He's just frightened of them, that's all.


HSBC profits

Sir: On 1 March "HSBC sets new record with £9.2bn annual profit" was reported on page 42. On page 47, in your article on pension fund black holes, we're told that HSBC has one of the largest pension fund deficits (£2bn) of FTSE 100 companies. Now now Sir John Bond, it can't be that difficult to solve. It's hardly astronomical science!

London SE9

Dry-eyed in Liverpool

Sir: As a Liverpudlian myself I can assure Boris Johnson and your readers that Liverpool is not habitually guilty of the oversentimental behaviour he alleges ("How did we get into this sorry mess?", 25 February). As evidence witness the city's dry-eyed and pragmatic response to the 1983 Heysel disaster in which 39 Italian fans died following a "charge" by Liverpool supporters. No two minutes' silence, eternal flames or annual remembrance ceremonies at Anfield for these unfortunates - Mr Johnson, you are clearly talking rubbish.

Willington, Cheshire

Teenage kicks

Sir: I wonder which aspects of British youth culture Winston MacKenzie, Veritas's spokesman for sport, (Pandora, 1 March), thinks young ethnic immigrants don't understand? Could it be the binge drinking, smoking, drug abuse, casual sex, vandalism and antisocial behaviour that our youths are famous for? If so, then he makes a strong case for increased immigration.