“Mad not bad” announces the Sun about Peter Sutcliffe’s impending move from Broadmoor to a normal prison. He’s been cured, we learn, of paranoid schizophrenia, which is an illness for which there is no cure. What do we make of that?
We do not expect the Sun to show any sensitivity towards the subject of mental illness. Remember when the former boxer Frank Bruno was sectioned under the mental health act? The Sun’s headline was “Bonkers Bruno locked up” and there were further references to him being “nuts”. I appreciate there is a bit of a difference between a mass murderer and a much-loved former sportsman but the low brow coverage of mental illness takes some believing.
I am not suggesting that Sutcliffe wasn’t in some way mad. I cannot begin to imagine what drove a seemingly normal lorry driver to start murdering women – it’s not something I would refer to as normal, whatever normal is – but I do wish some sections of the media would think these things through. There are many thousands of people who suffer from life-affecting conditions, like schizophrenia, yet live normal lives. There are millions of people who suffer with varying degrees of mental illness like depression and anxiety who are of no threat to anyone except, in some circumstances, themselves. Why should they be labelled “bonkers” and “nuts”?
It’s the lazy media lumping together of illnesses and conditions that I find so offensive. Perhaps the editors and journalists regard their readers as very simple and judge that they will only understand stories such as these if they are dressed up in seemingly simpleton language and, perhaps in some cases they are right. But most people are surely capable of distinguishing between a violent killer and someone who takes anti-depressants to combat a form of anxiety and depression?
Mental health being the Cinderella outpost of the NHS, not taken seriously by politicians in actions, only in weasel words, we keep it all simple. If someone has a crisis – and many of us have – they are not ill, they are mad. If they can’t cope, they need to be locked up and placed in a straitjacket. Whatever you do, keep them away from normal people. But we’re not all Peter Sutcliffes. Almost none of us are. I have my angry moments, but they never morph into wanting to hurt someone else. There is no reason why they should.
Despite the worst efforts of the gutter press, the insensitivity towards the mentally ill has been greatly diminished over the years. We still say things like “He’s as mad as a box of frogs!” but in so doing we refer to someone’s eccentricities than their mental wellbeing. I’m not saying we should stop saying things like that either. It’s all in the context of the conversation. To do otherwise we risk policing language and expression. Evolution to a different language is far more desirable. The Sun’s “Bonkers Bruno” was, undoubtedly, a putdown. There was nothing remotely affectionate about it. Today’s Sutcliffe headline suggests they have learned nothing.
The pen is mightier than the sword and considerably easier to write with. That’s the power of words. Use them carefully.