Over the past week Twitter and other forms of media have been bristling with commentary on the recent BBC Panorama programme A Prescription for Murder. Its premise was that use of a prescription SSRI antidepressant was linked to the so-called Batman killings in the United States, carried out by James Holmes.
The title of the programme and its content has been considered irresponsible and deeply stigmatising by the mental health community. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, the mental health charities Mind and Rethink, the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change and academic Dr Louis Appleby have all publicly condemned it. And rightly so.
Prescribed anti-depressants, for the vast majority of people who take them, are a helpful, indispensable part of treatment and recovery from debilitating depression and anxiety. For some people, they are truly life-saving. As we work to tackle the stigma surrounding all types of mental ill health and seek to break down the barriers to people accessing treatment, the sensationalism of the programme’s title is particularly unhelpful.
As we work to tackle the stigma surrounding all types of mental ill health and seek to break down the barriers to people accessing treatment, the sensationalism of the programme’s title is particularly unhelpful.director of policy and strategy
The chief executive of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, John Lawlor, is an NHS Providers board member and co-chair of our Mental Health Group. He has used his local media to condemn the programme and highlight the potentially damaging impact. He has accused the BBC of scaremongering and is particularly horrified at the link between murder and prescription medication in the title. He said:
“I am horrified that the BBC has chosen to use such stigmatising and unpleasant language in relation to people who use anti-depressants.
“The title is horrendous and sensationalist. Substantial steps forward to challenge the stigma of mental health have been made and linking the experience of mental health problems with violent crime only reinforces unhelpful stereotypes.
“The impact of stigmatising mental health issues is that people do not come forward for treatment, even though medication could help them. Currently only a quarter of people with mental health needs are accessing NHS services because of this.”
The impact of stigmatising mental health issues is that people do not come forward for treatment, even though medication could help them.chief executive - Northumberland, Tyne and Wear Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust
Time to Change
Here at NHS Providers we have signed the Time to Change Employers’ Pledge and are committed to tackling stigma and promoting mental health and wellbeing - for our own staff and also in the work we do to support mental health and other types of NHS trusts.
The content of the Panorama programme and the sensationalism of the title are deeply disappointing. They undermine the substantial progress made over the past decade in changing public attitudes to mental health problems, in creating a greater understanding of what means to have a mental illness, and in the recognition of the need to prioritise effective and timely services.
The NHS is the first system in the world to have access standards for a number of mental health conditions. This is what the Five Year Forward View for mental health sets out. It represents real progress and it is a shame that this programme’s approach does not reflect this.