The leader of Birmingham City Council has been forced to back-track on comments made during a heated debate when he accused a Labour councillor of suffering from “schizophrenia, delusion and amnesia”.
Conservative Mike Whitby issued a qualified apology about causing offence after the charity Mind criticised his choice of insult and pointed out his remarks would do nothing to break the continuing stigma associated with mental health issues.
During the same council budget meeting, Liberal Democrat Ray Hassall suggested some Labour members were suffering from senile dementia and has also apologised for his “unfortunate choice of words”.
Both cases display a wider problem that shows little sign of going away – namely our ignorance regarding mental health.
Such insults as those used above are throw-away comments and put into context were no doubt designed to express the feelings of exasperation and antipathy felt towards rivals during what was reportedly a heated debate.
That is not an attempt to justify either outburst, rather an observation that both councillors felt comfortable using such terms and never gave a second thought to what they were actually saying. This is due to the fact that such terms and such derogatory remarks are used so regularly.
As so often, many take their lead from the media in this respect.
Around 18 months ago I was asked to contribute to a national study into media attitudes towards mental health issues and the way such stories are covered.
At the time I suggested the now infamous way in which The Sun covered ex-boxer Frank Bruno’s mental health problems could mark something of a watershed in media attitudes. The widespread condemnation of the coverage and the attitude adopted by other media towards both the newspaper and the story suggested to me that lessons had been learned.
In hindsight, however, I think I was wrong. Nothing much has changed.
Mental health remains a taboo subject for many in the media, who simply prefer to ignore the subject entirely. On the other hand, others invariably fall into one of two camps – they either look to create sensational headlines which have little basis in fact; or they adopt a snide, sniggering approach that pokes fun at the problem.
There are so many instances where the media has singulkarly failed to tackle a mental health issue with sensitivity or responsibility.
In the last two years, for example, we’ve had a number of stories regarding self-harm and how NICE has introduced new guidelines for NHS workers dealing with people who go to A&E seeking treatment.
The story tended to be covered well enough, but then the use of images displays a fairly basic lack of understanding. Photographs of scars on arms, razor and knife blades are classic triggers for those who do self-harm and who, let’s face it, are likely to be avid readers of the articles.
Similarly, recent coverage of websites that seemingly promote eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia took a very responsible line in the editorial and then betrayed their lack of sensitivity by showing images from such sites and other photographs that could act as triggers for sufferers.
Too often, such stories can also adopt a rather hectoring and judgemental approach – offering opinion when maybe some support or advice would be more advisable.
The fact that both stories (and others) have now slipped down – or completely off – newslists, despite the fact that such issues are still prominent in society, suggests they have enjoyed their stint in the limelight and must wait for another development – maybe some more new clinical guidelines; maybe someone criticising sufferers and urging them to pull themselves together; maybe even a death – before the media decides to take interest again.
We still have a long way to go in the media when it comes to covering mental health issues.
But, then, so does society as a whole.
Our attitude – as shown by the comments of two senior elected members of Birmingham City Council – is still to either regard mental health as a taboo and ignore it completely, or use it a stick to poke fun and beat others up with.