Published in the Waikato Times 29 April 2015
I have read with concern recent media commentary on problems with mental health service providers.
Stories about care received by patients in mental health facilities are of public interest, and help to hold mental health services accountable for the care they provide.
However, I have been disappointed that much of the coverage of this issue over the last few months has been unbalanced and sensationalised, reinforcing myths that people with experience of mental illness are dangerous and violent. Reporting of this kind is not only factually inaccurate, but increases the stigma experienced by those with mental illnesses, and this then makes them less likely to ask for help when they need it.
Mental health facilities are not prisons. They should never be seen as custodial or punitive. In rare situations where someone with experience of mental illness commits a crime and is held in a secure forensic unit, this is done with the intention that they receive care and treatment, and can eventually be discharged into the community. People receiving care in mental health units are there more for their own safety than the safety of others.
The use of the word "escape" to describe people leaving facilities without staff knowledge is not appropriate. “Escaping” is inextricably linked with imprisonment and crime. This reinforces the idea that people with mental illness must be locked away for public safety. In fact, since New Zealand moved away from long-stay institutions, we have seen far fewer violent crimes by people with mental illness. People with experience of mental distress are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
When stories are sensationalised, some people fear for the safety of themselves and their families, and call for “higher walls” to be built, drawing a line between people who are mentally unwell and the rest of the community. However, the vast majority of patients in mental health facilities have committed no crimes and such a strategy would do them a great disservice. These knee-jerk reactions do not take into account the humanity of people in distress – too often they are reduced to caricatures instead of complex individuals with the potential to recover and live productive and valued lives.
I recognise that there are many New Zealand journalists producing exceptional and balanced work about mental illness. However, as a nation we must do better to discuss these issues in a way that does not cause problems for vulnerable people, and maintains a respectful and enlightened approach.
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand