"Mental Health" reporting

Open letter to the NUJ, to journalists and reporters

Suggested changes in how we report actual and alleged mental ill health

Dear all,

If someone is convicted of murder who happens to have or is alleged to have a mental illness I propose we report the conviction as:

J Bloggs was found guilty of YY at such and such a Court on such and such a date. J. Bloggs was said in defence during the trial to be suffering from XX. The jury was not convinced that the illness had any relevance to the crime. Or, barrister XX convinced the jury that experience of the illness contributed to YY and it was found to be a mitigating circumstance. I would propose that we only report what J. Bloggs is suffering from if it becomes an issue on the record during the trial and that we report it because it is integral to the story of the trial.

I propose that we never use the phrasing: Paranoid schizophrenic, J. Bloggs, was found guilty of murder at XX. It is very possible that the illness or possible illness is totally irrelevant to guilt or lack of guilt. It is very, very possible that the diagnosis is totally wrong. If the illness is not raised as a defence then it ought not to be an issue when reporting the trial. Even if it is relevant and raised as a defence I propose that in our reporting of a conviction we put the person not the illness first. To do otherwise does a disservice to medicine.

Quite separately as a citizen I propose that we give the same sentences in length of time or nature of curtailment of liberty (eg community service, or 10 years or ???) irrespective of whether someone has or has ever experienced a mental illness or not and that medical reports that impact how a prisoner is treated are not done until after the judge has set the term or nature of curtailment of freedom. Someone who has ever experienced mental illness does not need necessarily to be in hospital, but if they do then their defence solicitor can make that case once the verdict is in and whilst the individual is waiting for sentencing. If remanded in custody there is no reason, surely, to say on the public record to which facility they have been remanded. Again, surely, it is the solicitors not the medical profession who ought to be responsible for making the arguments, calling in camera, perhaps in the presence of those most nearly affected by the crime, the relevant professionals for questioning.

There is nothing to stop the defence solicitor asking his or her client if they have ever suffered mental illness, how they feel at the time and whether they are taking medication or wish to see a doctor. As long as the obscenity of forcible medication remains on the Statute books any prisoner moved against their will to a hospital ought to have immediate access to their defence solicitor in addition to one specialised in the Mental Health Act. There is the real posssibility of medical action that could be interpeted as corporal punishment and to do otherwise brings the State into disrepute.

If prisons are a disgrace to a civilised society they need to be improved rather than the psychiatric profession weeding out who gets to go to prison before that person has been sentenced. And if they are a disgrace they are a disgrace for everyone, mentally ill at a given time or not.

I propose as a citizen that the medical report after sentencing not be made public except, possibly, if appropriate and relevant to understanding the crime, under judicial guidance to the victim's family and friends. The medical profession ought to have no role of any kind in sentencing. There is no need to use the mental health act for deprivation of freedom. Anyone who has committed murder, irrespective of whether they have a mental illness, is dangerous. Nor are the Courts society's referees, as I heard one doctor say. The Courts sit in judgment, which is not the role of the medical profession.

If someone has been found guilty of crime and is thought to have paranoid schizophrenia then they ought not to serve more or less time than someone who does not, and it is not for the medical profession to determine whether they are released or not. It is for them to figure out what treatment they recommend in different circumstances. The professional relationship between anyone and a doctor is in essence consensual irrespective of need, that between a client and the legal profession a necessity, usually unwelcome.

I would welcome and be pleased to publish views that argue against anything I have written here.

And let me add today, 12th March 2012, that if anyone is deprived of freedom under any element of the MHAct then they ought to have the right to insist that the Mental Health Tribunal at which they appeal for their freedom sits in public, and they must have the right to question the doctor in public. Nor may a doctor seek to prevent someone from having their day in Court by saying they are too ill to appear, as they seek freedom in front of a mental health tribunal. The medical profession is not fit to be trusted on this issue, and I know they make up whatever suits their prejudice, and hear what they want to hear, not what is said to them. The fascist obscenity of the MHAct and its life destroying utterly prejudiced and intolerant heart must be challenged.

Yours sincerely
Helen Gavaghan