The Sun headlines ‘1200 people killed by mental patients’. The TRUTH is you are more likely to be killed by a ‘sane’ person! The Guardian
The Sun says 1,200 people have been killed by
‘mental patients’ Is it true?
The front page of the Sun on Monday carried an ‘exclusive’ about a dangerous crisis in Britain’s mental health system, apparently resulting in hundreds of killings.
The phrase “mental patients” used in the Sun‘s headline conjures up images of Asda’s “mental patient fancy dress costume” which was withdrawn last month. It’s one of a few problems with the newspaper’s splash.
• 1 in 5 said “anyone with a history of mental problems should be excluded from taking public office”.
• 1 in 10 said “it is frightening to think of people with mental problems living in residential neighbourhoods”.
• 1 in 10 said “A woman would be foolish to marry a man who has suffered from mental illness, even though he seems fully recovered”.
Linking mental illness to violence, as the headline does, could therefore be seen as irresponsible. But have 1,200 people really been killed by people receiving treatment for mental illness? That is the claim we are seeking to check.
As the sub-heading states, the supposed death toll is over the space of a decade. In a double-page spread featuring the faces of dead victims and the words “broken people … broken system” more detail is given on how “the Sun’s probe … discovered 1,216 people were killed by patients with mental illnesses from 2001-2010 – an average of 122 deaths a year”.
What is the source of the data?
The figures come from an annual report, published by the University of Manchester in July 2013. It contains no data since 2010. You can read the report here.
Two elements of the Sun’s article could be misleading:
1. It has added together “mental patients” (people who have “been in contact with mental health services in the 12 months prior to the offence”) and “individuals who had symptoms of mental illness”. As the researchers make clear, with this group, “although symptoms were present, we do not know if these symptoms led directly to the homicide”. In addition, “most of these people were not under mental health care; therefore most [homicides] were not preventable by mental health services”.
2. If you look only at murders committed by “patients”, the total for the decade is slashed from 1,216 to 738.
Examining the figures year by year also changes the picture, showing that the number of such deaths has declined since 2006. 2010 was the lowest year for murders by patients with mental health issues – there were 40 across the UK, compared with 92 in 2005, as shown on this chart:
The bigger picture
Here are some other facts that put the Sun’s figure into perspective.
• In 2010-11 635 homicides were recorded in England and Wales. That means 95% of murders were committed by individuals who had not been diagnosed with a mental health problem.
• When you compare the total number of homicides and the thousands of discharges of mental health patients, where data is available, there is no correlation.
• The mental health charity Time to Change says “people with mental health problems are more dangerous to themselves than they are to others: 90% of people who die through suicide in the UK are experiencing mental distress”.