By Elliot Adams
Several years ago, The Sun published their infamous ”Bonkers Bruno Locked Up” front page, which belittled the mentally ill and their treatment with prejudice, understandably this received numerous complaints from readers, doctors and mental health charities. Now they’re in trouble again for using the pejorative term ‘schizo’ in coverage of mental health issues referring to patients suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. A clear breach of article 12 of the Press Complaints Commission’s Editor’s Code of Practice;
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
The PCC have not upheld the complaints, rather they seem satisfied with The Sun‘s assurances that they would “use [their] best endeavours not to use the term ‘schizo’ in the future.” Although I find it hard to believe the tabloid is particularly concerned with what will happen if they continue to use the term in this way, not after such soft treatment.
It’s not like it’s a one-off occurrence either, The Sun‘s website contains 14 articles using the word ‘schizo’, 58 using the word ‘nutter’ and 187 using the word ‘psycho’.
Not all of these incidences will be using this derogatory language to stigmatise mental illness, but many of those that aren’t are framing story’s on violent crime within negative terms of mental illness. Of course, despite tabloid opinion, national studies indicate that severe mental illness is not a significant cause of violence in society* – the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
Perhaps I’m over-reacting, this is after-all the tabloid that I recall referring to a man convicted of sexual assault as ‘the craven rape beast’, expectations of their editorial-integrity should be kept suitably low.
But the influence of tabloid publications like The Sun is massive upon attitudes towards a group seen through so many misconceptions. Mental illness is at a positive but delicate transitory stage in how it is perceived and treated. It’s now seen as a medical condition like any other condition, people with mental illness can expect to get the same kind of respect and services as people who have a physical disability. But negative attitudes perpetuated by the tabloid treatment of mental health are still rife. For a more in depth look at these attitudes look to 250 labels used to stigmatise people with mental illness, a qualitative study by Diana Rose, Graham Thornicroft et al. that shows the negative and confused attitudes a sample of students had towards the mentally ill.
If we are to provide the factual information and appropriate respect required to change these attitudes, we will need a new degree of editorial responsibility, not just ”best endeavours not to use the term ‘schizo’ in the future”, but best endeavours to counteract stigma and prejudice where it is most potent – in our own minds.
* There is though a statistical association with factors that do relate to violence, such as substance abuse and various, social and economic factors.