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Are psychiatric patients a risk to the public?

12th September 2008

Louis Appleby, national director for Mental Health in England, accuses the BBC of pandering to prejudices in its portrayal of the risks psychiatric patients pose to the public.

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The Today programme has for so long been a "guardian of public accountability" yet in its recent programme looking at people who had escaped from secure mental health units it became guilty of pandering to the public prejudice against the mentally ill.

In discovering that 116 people had escaped from these units since 2007, it quoted commentators who called this "horrifying".

The focus was on the case of Darren Harkin, who had raped a girl of 14 after escaping from a low secure unit.

The implication from this was that there were more than 100 potential killers on the streets and that the mental health system was failing to protect the public.

However, while the Harkin case is "truly appalling", the issue there is why someone with his history was in a low secure unit at all.

The Today programme did not make the link that low secure patients do not need high level security and they were also too quick to equate secure hospitals with prison.

The argument, leading to the programme's crude premise that mentally ill escapees are dangerous, was flawed.

I tried to explain under hostile questioning how mental health care, unlike prisons, has to strike a balance between care and security.

What was worrying was that the country’s top news programme was presenting a picture of mental illness – a condition that affects a quarter of the population - that was not only harmful, but poorly informed.

 

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