BBC North West Tonight ends 3 year hush on schizophrenia stories

Liverpool Echo also comes in for tough criticism

By Ian Birch

If you follow my blog on Mental Healthy, you will know I have a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and used to work for BBC English Regions and Radio 4 as a news and features reporter.   So it’s not easy for me to say this … but I’ve just suffered a significant blow in my 3 year fight against media stigma in the North West, where I live.  

BBC North West Tonight | Ranvir Singh and Roger Johnson | 05/10/2011 6.30pmLast night’s top story on BBC North West Tonight reported how a man with “mental problems” killed both his parents “8 days after he should have taken his medication”.  You can imagine how much distress this caused me, as I am sure it did all those who have been fighting such stigmatising headlines in recent years.

On the broadcast they did not use the words 'paranoid schizophrenic', however they did online.  And so did the Liverpool Echo.  Buried deep on page two of the Liverpool Echo’s top story is the truth:  “He was addicted to crack cocaine and heroin and would regularly drink up to nine litres of cider in the mornings. He was once given a severe beating after a dispute with a drugs gang in the area.  [The man] was sentenced to three years in jail for drug dealing, serving 18 months before he was released.” Please see the enlightening Mental Healthy story about 'Substance abuse, not mental illness causes violent crime' which gives details into a large study of over 8000 people with diagnosed schizophrenia.

This is NOT a mental illness story.  This is a hard drugs and alcohol abuse story.  One in four of the population suffer from a mental illness at some point during their lives, and 1% of the population have schizophrenia. Some other facts journalists and reporters may wish to consider when discussing mental illness (taken from another Mental Healthy report) are as follows:

  • People with severe mental illness are responsible for only one in 20 violent crimes.
  • Out of 45 violent crimes committed per 1,000 inhabitants 2.4 were attributed to patients with severe mental illness, which also includes bipolar disorder and other psychoses.

On a personal note, I spend a lot of time volunteering with people with schizophrenia and have never once been threatened – nor have I ever posed a danger to anyone other than myself.

I started a discussion amongst fellow mental health journalists and activists on Facebook last night, and the criticisms of the BBC and Liverpool Echo were damning.

I cannot bring myself to write about the details of the story – it is far too upsetting to me personally and must be devastating to the two surviving sisters, for whom I feel nothing but sympathy and a deep sense of tragedy.   But the North West media must not use such occasions to heap stigma on the 60,000 people in the UK who have schizophrenia.

I have previously offered BBC North West and the Liverpool Echo mental health awareness training via a very large mental health charity.  I have offered to personally revisit the BBC’s newsrooms and give a presentation on schizophrenia.  All offers have been declined.

So what you do to help combat stigma if your local newspaper or TV or radio station runs a highly biased, stigmatising and prejudiced story about someone with a mental illness?  Well I asked mental health charity, Mind, and they gave me some tips:

  • Newspapers – write to or email the editor (or send a letter for publication).  If you are not satisfied with the response, contact the Press Complaints Commission (see link below).  Mind advise you to keep a copy of the article and send it to the PCC, by post or email
  • Radio and TV – you can complain to the broadcaster directly or to OFCOM, the regulator for broadcasting – although note that on bias and accuracy, the BBC self-regulates and OFCOM cannot get involved.  For OFCOM’s website, see below
  • Shift – shifting attitudes towards mental health – this organisation encourages people to complain about stigmatising media coverage and has lots of tips on how to do so.  Its website is listed below.

You could also set up a blog – I have five – and start up conversations at home, work (if you work or volunteer), with your friends etc. about the latest news and drop the story into conversation.   The more people who are open about mental illness, the closer we’ll come to fighting the stigma – and if you do live in the North West and feel like complaining, there are links below!

External Links

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