As the world tries to understand how a tragedy like Norway could happen, speculation on the mental state of Anders Behring Breivik abounds in the international press. This casual yet pervasive linkage between deviance and a concept of “madness” perpetuates and encourages stigma and prejudice surrounding mental health. Such speculation is largely misinformed in its understanding of mental health experience, and unfairly fuels ignorance and exclusion.
Press stories about the perpetrator of the Norway massacre frequently refer to Breivik’s “madness” as if relating a proven fact, using descriptions such as “deranged” or “psychopath”. Such coverage stems partly in reaction to the question of whether Breivik will plead insanity to avoid conviction. It also stems from continuation of a popular media theme which associates violence which mental illness and encourages public fear of people with mental health support needs. Mental Health Europe, commenting on the media coverage of the Norwegian killings remarks that “prejudice is only reinforced by equating mental health problems with gruesome acts of violence”.
Sensationalist treatment of mental health exacerbates negative perceptions of what is recognised by the World Health Organisation as one of the most discriminated against groups of disabled people. Studies have shown that whereas there is no connection between the majority of violent crime and mental ill health, people with experience of using mental health services are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than those without. In other areas of life mental health service users face discrimination from families, friends, health professionals and employers leading to social and economic exclusion and a lack of access to healthcare support.
Not only is it damaging to the wider community of people with mental health support needs to publicly and emphatically link Breivik’s crimes with “madness”, it is also inaccurate. From what is known about him, he does not have a history of mental ill health and no diagnosable mental illness. The label is used by journalists and commentators because they cannot conceive that his actions could have been possible unless he was quite literally out of his mind. Whilst the need to try and make sense of the awful events is understandable, use of the “mad” label is lazy and incorrect.
If we really want to prevent such a terrible incident from happening again it would be more worthwhile to look, not in detail at the individual perpetrator, his background, behaviour and mental state, but at the wider factors which played their part such in the tragedy such as the prevalence, strength and, in some parts, social acceptability of racist ideology. These are things over which society does have some level of control and to which it could more usefully turn its attention.
The recent killings inNorwaywere borne of prejudice, of racism and islamophobia. It is wrong that press coverage, while abhorring the atrocity that has occurred, should itself perpetuate stigmatisation and discrimination against another group of people who are already poorly understood by wider society. The press should support society to question and understand itself, not to incite fear, hatred and prejudice.
Ellen Clifford, Disabled People Against Cuts and IL member.