Newtown's Sandy Hook tragedy and mental health reporting

Sue Baker, Director of Time to ChangeWatching the media coverage of the horrific loss of life at Newtown’s Sandy Hook elementary school left me stunned and deeply saddened, and thinking about the difficult journey of grieving that these families will face at this time of year, and for many years to come.

It is hard to find any words of solace or comfort, apart from hoping that their emotional pain will ease, even if it never leaves them.

I write this piece with serious reservations, because responding to this mass scale tragedy needs sensitive handling with well chosen words. But what has prompted me to share my thoughts is a nagging fear that the current debate about revisiting gun controls in the US being linked to access to mental health services, will, down the line, have unintended consequences for millions of people with mental health problems. We have seen this in the UK when rare tragic deaths that involved someone with a mental illness led to widespread coverage that fed the myth that almost everyone with a mental illness is a potential killer. This exaggeration of the danger that people with mental health problems may pose has fuelled the stigma which has ruined so many lives.

In the UK in the mid to late 1990s we saw extensive media coverage and political debate, about the ‘failure’ of community care linked to some high profile homicides committed by people with mental illnesses.

To me, this is a further tragedy: that it takes rare, violent and tragic events to focus the political and public attention on the need for more widely available and effective services and treatments. For decades mental health has lived in the shadows of other ‘physical’ parts of the health service (this very divide between physical and mental health is now what many of us are seeking to overturn).

We all agree with the need to protect the public, but this is not the sole issue in mental health. In the UK, violent incidents involving people with mental health problems are actually very rare. Yet it previously dominated the debate here, and there may be lessons from our history that could help the US handle this issue with due care.

We learnt the long and hard way that we also need to turn the spotlight on treatment outcomes, recovery rates, and an open attitude that allows those of us with mental health problems to lead the full and active lives we are more than capable of without the barriers that stigma and discrimination place in our way. We have seen improvements to services over the last two decades, and in more recent years we have also seen more balanced media reporting, and improvements to public attitudes towards mental illness – but we still have more work to do.

If the US leads a mental health debate with the Newtown tragedy as the central point of reference, there will be further tragic consequences for the millions of people living with mental health problems who present no threat to the public - unless this is debated and reported in a balanced and measured way.

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