Note to the Sun: if you’re going to stigmatise mentally ill people, at least get your figures right

The Sun has splashed this morning on a shocking-sounding statistic: “1,200 people killed by mental patients”. In a double-page spread on the inside pages, they intone: “Broken people… broken system”.

The story appears to be nonsense from top to bottom. What’s more, even if it weren’t, it would be irresponsible and dangerous.

Here’s why it’s nonsense. That 1,200 (which, by the way, is over a decade, not a year) appears to be double the true figure. On page 43 of The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness Annual Report July 2013, by the University of Manchester, which is where the Sun apparently got its figures, under the section labelled “Patient homicide”, it says:

During 2001-2011, 615 people convicted of homicide (10% of the total sample) were identified as patients, i.e. the person had been in contact with mental health services in the 12 months prior to the offence, an average of 56 homicides per year.

So the actual figure appears to be 615.

• UPDATE: That 615 is actually perpetrators; the correct figure for victims is 738. (See page 128 of the report.) The Sun’s 1,216 victims is reached by adding the number of people with symptoms of mental illness to the number of people who had used mental health services in the previous year (ie not patients), so their figure is an overestimate by 65 per cent. Thanks to Tom Phillips for pointing that out.

It’s hard to know where the Sun’s figure of 1,200 comes from (no it isn’t: see above), but it may be that they added it to the figure on page 42, which is:

The number of people during the report period with an abnormal mental state at the time of the homicide was 602, 10% of the total sample, an average of 55 per year.

These people aren’t necessarily “mental patients”, although no doubt many of them will have been. The ones who are, though, will already be taken into account in the 615 figure, above. They have managed, through simple, stupid misreading, to double the actual figure (no: it’s a 65 per cent overestimate, see above. My misreading there; oops).

What’s more, the figure for the number of people killed by mental health service patients has been dropping every year since 2004. All murders have been dropping for years, in fact, and violent crime in general. But your chances of being killed by a “mental patient” (or a “broken person”, as the Sun also calls them) are at their lowest in years. Whatever the state has been doing since then, it seems to be working.

But even if all of this wasn’t the case – even if 1,200 was the correct figure (it isn’t) and even if the stats hadn’t been moving in the right direction for a decade (they have) – it would still be a stupid, ugly, poisonous thing to run.

As the chief executive of the mental health charity Mind says in a little box on the Sun’s own pages, there are 1.2 million people who are “in touch with secondary mental health services”. Those 1.2 million people will kill, on average, 56 people a year. Using those statistics crudely, if you keep one of them incarcerated for fear that they might cause harm, you have a 0.005 per cent chance of preventing a murder, but a 100 per cent chance of locking someone up when they haven’t committed a crime. Of course, the mental health services are more sophisticated than that in determining who is a danger to others, but nonetheless it is a very crude business.

More importantly, though, this negligible risk to the wider public is nothing compared to the risk to mentally ill people themselves. In 2011, 1,333 mental health service patients killed themselves. Stigmatising mental patients – using the front page of a national newspaper to make them out to be dangerous killers – risks stopping people who suffer from mental illness from seeking help. Far from saving lives, the Sun’s campaign could put more in danger.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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