On 2nd July 2001, Barry George was convicted of the murder of Jill Dando. In 2008, after the conviction had been overturned in 2007, a retrial acquitted him. From the very moment he was found guilty, analysts such as Joan Smith of the Independent (in her article I’m amazed at the Dando verdict. Aren’t you?) had suggested the conviction was unsafe, relying as it did on one dubious piece of forensic evidence, but mostly on the character of George himself. Unlike cases such as those of Dr Crippen, where the people who knew the murderer remarked that they would never have thought him capable of hurting anyone, it seemed that everyone who had contact with Barry George found it quite believable that he had killed the TV presenter. His past didn’t help, either: an acquittal on a charge of indecent assault was quickly followed by a conviction on a similar charge, and a couple of years later a conviction of attempted rape. He was, in short, a peculiar man with a previous history of crime. But that didn’t make him a killer.
To a great extent, the general public wanted George to be guilty. Wanted to think that it was possible to spot a murderer a mile off; that it was only ‘crazy’ people who commit crimes; those with evident mental illness or disability. Whilst this is a comforting idea for the majority of people, it is not only verifiably untrue (research into crime data in Sweden between 1988 and 2000 demonstrated that 19 out of every 20 violent crimes was committed by a person with no mental illness) but can be positively dangerous for those who live with mental illness. Because the flip side of this assumption is the belief that anyone who seems ‘abnormal’ or ‘unusual’ is a potential criminal. And if you are struggling with mental illness, the last thing you need is to be suspected of named or unnamed crimes. Andy Bell, from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, points out that “although schizophrenia is associated with an increased risk of violent crime, the proportion of people with schizophrenia who commit violent crimes is still very low (and they are much more likely to be victims of violent crime). The main risk factors for crime tend to be poverty, family breakdown, drug and alcohol problems, and not mental ill health.”
George’s arrest and subsequent prosecution is by no means the first time that someone with acknowledged mental difficulties has been accused of horrific crimes with little in the way of physical evidence. Stephen Downing, a teenager with learning disabilities, was convicted of the 1973 murder of Wendy Sewell and spent 27 years in prison. Because he would not confess to the crime, he was ineligible for parole; a year after he finally left prison, his conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal as unsafe.
The fear of mental illness and disability reflects badly on society as a whole. If there is a stigma about physical disabilities – and, as a wheelchair user, I can assure you there is – there is an even bigger one when it comes to mental illnesses. Anna, a woman with both physical and mental illnesses says, “I have a problem with anxiety, but I don’t want to see a doctor for an official diagnosis because of the way I have been treated in the past by others when I’ve talked about having a mental illness. I suffered from depression soon after I became disabled; and I found that people’s reactions to me changed more (and more negatively) if I told them about the depression than if I explained my physical disability.”
Red, who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after her partner’s suicide admits that she fears prejudice, particularly in the work place – “Who would employ me if they knew?” she asks, damningly. Pookie agrees. “I know I can work despite having Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” she says, “but employers may take a different view.” Andy Bell says that often people with a history of mental illness find themselves at a severe disadvantage in the job market. “Many people are put off even applying for jobs for fear of discrimination. Others find they are questioned about gaps in their career or they have problems with Occupational Health questionnaires before being offered jobs.” This attitude not only discriminates against those with mental health issues, but also robs employers of potentially excellent workers.
What causes people to react with such fear and suspicion to those with mental disability or illness? Red suggests that it is the idea of ‘otherness’ that one fears; the difference to a perceived norm. “I think we humans have a real problem with our need to create the division of ‘us’ & ‘them’.” Claire, who joined a self-help group to help her with depression, says that she found it uncomfortable to be around other people there, some of whom had more severe mental illnesses. “I’m made very nervous by people who don’t play by the “normal” rules of social interaction because I find interacting with others hard and changing the rules scares me. I suppose society’s influence is that people are encouraged to hide their little ways and behave according to norms, and you grow up expecting things to be a certain way.” Bassan, however, as the relative of a woman with severe mental illness, thinks there may be more to it: she avoids her aunt for fear of being sucked into the same thought patterns: Bassan says, specifically, that she sees some mental illnesses as “contagious,” and that “shutting [people with] them out is self-preservation.”
What can be done to change attitudes, and not only make life easier for the many people who live with mental illness, but also make it less likely that miscarriages of justice will happen? Pookie says that more and better information would be a good start. “Scotland started a campaign a few years back which really helped me; I am now starting to be more open about my illness after the higher media profile.” Leona, whose anxiety disorder went undiagnosed for many years, adds “I think people being more open about their mental illness would go a long way to making it less taboo. As long as people with mental illness continue to act like it is a shameful secret, the public at large will continue to treat it like a shameful secret.” Kay comments that “experiencing symptoms myself has made me more understanding – though enforcing symptoms on everyone to promote empathy is probably not a feasible solution!”
Andy Bell, however, says that no single method will suffice. “We need to tackle prejudice and the discrimination and harassment that follow with the same force that race equality and disability rights campaigners have employed: i.e. a mixture of work with the media, improved legal rights and enforcement, social contact and skills training for line managers at work.”
Meanwhile, we can only be grateful to campaigners such as Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, whose work assisted in getting Stephen Downing’s conviction quashed, and Michelle Diskin, Barry George’s sister, who was instrumental in getting George’s case referred to the Court of Appeal. Until the stigma of mental illness has been reduced, society needs people – as well as organisations such as MIND and the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health – to fight for the rights of those with mental disabilities to be treated with understanding and basic human dignity.
MIND (The National Association for Mental Health) http://www.mind.org.uk/
Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (Mental Health Research Charity Currently Focusing on Employment and Criminal Justice Issues) http://www.scmh.org.uk/
Department of Health (Details of the Mental Health Act 2007) http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Healthcare/NationalServiceFrameworks/Mentalhealth/DH_078743