Negative perceptions on mental health

By John Saunders*

The recent media coverage of the committal of Mary Prendergast to the Central Mental Hospital and the appalling death of her daughter, Jessica, creates a very worrying public opinion about the danger from people with mental ill health.

It also begs the necessity for a much deeper examination by the media and the general public in relation to the links between mental illness and violence.
People with a mental illness are no more likely than anyone else to commit acts of violence. This fact was substantiated in a recently published US study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where researchers carried out a statistical analysis of data involving over 34,000 people. 

The study did reveal, however, that mental illness combined with substance abuse or dependence increases the risk for future violence. The team found that even mental illness combined with substance abuse ranks only ninth on the study's list of the top 10 predictors of future violence.
These findings dispute the perception that some people and media sources have about people with mental ill- health, and it is a perception that must be challenged. The University of North Carolina study shows that mental illness alone does not necessarily make someone more violent or dangerous.
The reality is that the vast majority of people who have a mental illness do not display violent behaviour.
1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives. If it isn't you – then you can be sure that it will be a colleague, friend or family member.

The recent tragic case should also prompt us all to cast a critical eye over Ireland's mental health services and consider the necessity of a properly resourced and managed modern mental healthcare system. Mental health services are not a discretionary public service, but a vital – and sometimes emergency public service.
In times of recession, certain public services inevitably have increasing demands – unemployment assistance, debt management, and mental health services.

Samaritans and Aware have both recorded increases in calls to their helpline services in the latter part of 2008.  The Health Research Board reported increased admissions to in-patient units and hospitals in 2007 – the first year on year increase in over two decades.
Demands on services are likely to increase further in the year ahead.  The established link between economic recession, financial pressures and mental health needs, make the case for reform and investment in mental health services more urgent.

Furthermore, stigma and social exclusion are both risk factors and consequences of mental health problems, which may create major barriers to help-seeking and recovery.
Despite statements of support for mental health reform from Government and the HSE, basic systems to promote reform are not in place, targets for service delivery have not been met and development funding has all but ceased.
There is a risk in times of economic difficulty that mental health services will fall victim to cutbacks.  Indeed the diversion of development funding allocated for mental health services in 2006 and 2007 away from its intended purpose to meet budget deficits elsewhere indicates the vulnerability of mental health services in good times as much as bad. 
Investment in mental health services is money well spent – and the Government must recognise the need for improved mental health services at this time and to protect and drive the momentum for the reform of mental health services. Mental ill health can affect any one of us.

*John Saunders is Director of Shine – Supporting People Affected by Mental Ill Health (Formerly Schizophrenia Ireland) and Chair of the Irish Mental Health Coalition.

Shine - Supporting People Affected by Mental Ill Health, can be contacted at:
38 Blessington Street
Dublin 7
Tel:  01 8601620
Fax: 01 8601602
Information Helpline: 1890 621 631


Broken - 26/02/2009 12:28

Thank you John for the article.

I have seen services in my own area plummet with more ill people in the community and all the local services say when any is in trouble "call the police" yet I remind them these are NOT criminals but sick people.

No emergency community nurses and a refusal to take those that beg, into the hospitals when they know themselves they need the 'asylum'.  People around here ARE NOT managing in the community despite the pie in the sky belief they would.

As for money, pie in the sky again, it has always been the 'poor relation' in regard to funding. 

How you get the health professionals to turn this around I do not know.

I cannot understand the thinking bar the fact that very ill people unable to work dont add to the economy or votes.

I am tired of wrestling with the mental health services for basics for sick people around me.

Jimbob - 26/02/2009 14:47

Hi John

I agree with your sentiments. It is popular to contend that stigma is going away but let one service user do anything wrong and we soon see that the media and public are ready to pounce and to verify their baseless preconceptions. If a person with schizophrenia commits a crime, the papers report 'schizoid attcker' or 'killer'; yet if it were a diabetic that carried out the offence, their medical condition would not be newsworthy.

Could a full reference be provided for the US North carolina study please?

Anonymous - 27/02/2009 09:51

Hi Jim bob, that's actually very true. Mental health problems are seen in a light far more negative than physical health problems. It reminds me of a time not so long ago when if a person from a certain Dublin community commited an offence it would be listed as x-town man does such and such but if the offender was from a well off area, his origin would not be mentioned.

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