News ID: 258233
Published: 1218 GMT September 03, 2019

Violence in mental health can't be ignored, but nor can the pain of punitive policies

Violence in mental health can't be ignored,  but nor can the pain of punitive policies

When Anna* became physically unwell as a student, her GP referred her to a psychiatrist and she agreed to voluntary treatment. After interviewing her for less than an hour, the psychiatrist diagnosed her with schizophrenia and told her there was a risk she would kill her mother.

“I have never been violent in my life, ever,” she said. But for 35 years Anna has had to live with this information, knowing it is written in her medical records and has limited her life opportunities for two decades, according to the Guardian.

She has since successfully held down a responsible permanent job, bought her own home and been a pillar of the community, but as she observes: “There do not seem to be any spent convictions in psychiatry.”

Violence is sadly commonplace in our world, and it is a specter that can hang over anyone experiencing distress. But discussion about mental health and violence is largely tied to the punitive attitudes and assumptions of a different age.

There is now an emphasis on mental health service users telling their stories, on challenging prejudice against them, and on treating mental illness like any other health problem. But when people’s mental health problems are linked with killings or violence, the story takes a different turn.

Very sharp distinctions are drawn by politicians and media between the public, who must be protected, and service users, who must be controlled and segregated. This is despite the fact that many high-profile cases have been associated with the failure of mental health services to respond to urgent pleas from service users and their loved ones to intervene and keep them safe. It also ignores the reality that mental health service users are much more likely to be left without adequate support and kill themselves.

Any death associated with the psychiatric system must always be a matter of major concern. But the evidence has long suggested that political and media preoccupations with violence and mental health service users has not been reflected in any major increase in deaths or attacks. The point is not to belittle the problem of violence in relation to mental health but to examine it from broader, fresher perspectives.

Just as modern understanding of disability takes account of people’s circumstances and the barriers they face, so mental health and violence should be re-examined, noting the powerlessness, poverty, racism and other discrimination service users can experience disproportionately.

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