Friday, 1 July 2011

Please read this one - I got up at half past six this morning to write it!

Hi All

I am going to blog on a difficult subject today, and part of me thinks that I should not even go here. But I was upset yesterday by something I read on the BBC news website. I had been Twittering away on the subject of how the word schizophrenia should be made obsolete. Blogspot was down so I couldn't make a post. Twitter is not really me – I use too many words, haven't got the hang of the soundbite. Worry that I haven't expressed myself properly, so try to clarify. Anywhow, so I made three, four, five, Twitters, then was interrupted by one from the BBC (quoted by a mental health charity, because your Twitter feed is dictated by who you follow). A schizophrenic killer had received inadequate care in the community, said the headline.

My first reaction was horror. Schizophrenic killer – well then, I am fighting a lost cause. I have a disease that makes me potentially dangerous. Why do I even try to be normal, no-one will ever believe I am not a risk... oh no, take a step back. Think. Read the article.

So I clicked on the link, got to the BBC site, and read. And what had happened was that the twenty-three year old murderer had been allowed out of hospital in 2008 by a pyschiatrist who said that he had no symptoms of schizophrenia (despite the fact that he was obviously unwell and had been assessed to be a risk to others). He had been dumped with his possessions in a bin liner in the foyer of a homeless hostel. He had asked to go back to hospital, but was refused. Then a care worker accompanied him to a shop to buy a bottle of vodka....Then he killed. Those are the facts. I almost wrote 'He heard voices telling him to kill, and he killed' because that was how it was reported. But then I thought, hang on, that was inside his head. That was how he said it happened – probably true, but not an objective fact. Fact is, he killed.

It is a catalogue of woes. Tragedy all round – the murderer, the victim. The murderer's family, the victim's family. Lost lives, ruined lives...When I studied law, criminal law used to really upset me. Some of these things just can't be rationalised. I read the paper – a proper paper, The Times - every day, and I still avoid a lot of the hard stuff. There is too much hard stuff in the world.

But in this case I had to try. The BBC headline had interrupted my set of Twitters on the subject of schizophrenia. It was right there in front of me. I couldn't ignore it. There was a quote from Sane, the mental health charity. It made the point that there had been a huge tragedy, a preventable one, and that also a disservice had been done to the thousands of people who suffer from schizophrenia but who are never violent.

That is true. But I would like to take it a step further. Alcohol was a factor in this case. Well, my mother was an alcoholic, and was never even slightly violent even when she was paralytic. I am, they tell me, 'schizophrenic' and have never been, or ever will be violent. In my opinion, people with violent tendencies do violent things. Of course, if they are in the grip of a mental illness, allowance should be made – and it is, there is a plea of 'diminished responsibility' to murder on the grounds of insanity.

But – and this is important – in my opinion the term 'schizophrenic killer' should not be used in reporting the violence. Apart from the fact that schizophrenia is not a valid term. Because, and again this is obvious to me, anyone who murders another person must be mad. In the same way, anybody who abuses a child must be crazy – deep-down horribly disturbed. And so must a perpetrator of genocide, or terrorism, or so on.

The headline is no more accurate than one which used the term 'Drunk killer'. More people are killed by those in the grip of alcohol than those in the grip of mental illness, but alcohol is not often cited in the news as the cause of the killing. Because it is the person who kills, not the illness (and I consider alcoholism to be an illness too).

It is not the fault of the journalists. As I read in the comments on Rossa's blog yesterday, it is very confusing of the psychiatrists to invent the word schizophrenic and then declare that it doesn't mean split personality (and doesn't imply violence). It is not the fault of the psychaitrists either. Obviously it is their worst possible nightmare – most of the time they veer too far in the opposite direction, trying to control people who are not violent at all.

It is not even the fault of the mental illness. It is the fault of the care worker who led that man to buy vodka (because alcohol exaggerates people's usual personality traits, and diminshes their inhibitions) and it is ultimately the fault of the man himself. I do feel extremely sorry for his family. They must still be reeling from the shock (three years later, the case has been to court and is now under some kind of independent review of the process) and they must still be struggling to make sense of it all and they must be so so angry with the system (and I would be too, the system is wrong at its best and they have experienced it at its worst. What kind of care worker 'helps' their charge to buy alcohol? What kind of hospital turns away somebody desperate for help?)

But, at the end of the day, sad as I am for everybody in this case, I can't help trying to make my thoughts on this subject clear. That man wielded the knife. He lifted the knife and plunged it into his victim's body. Whatever his reasons for doing so, and whatever his state of mind at the time, the crime should not be laid at the door of a nebulous and scarily named set of mental health symptoms.

Here's the link to this sad story:


  1. It is not at all politically correct to say this, but where were his relatives? Not one mention of their responsibility to take him in and care for him. This young man is only 23 years old, not much beyond high school. It is highly likely that someone will relapse when they are marginalized, as this young man was. One of my recurring themes is that families have to step up to the plate and not wash their hands of all responsibilities. As imperfect as families are, they mean the most to the person, and should be more actively encouraged to take up their responsibilities, not to hand them over to community caregivers.

  2. I know what you mean, Rossa, and I know in other countries and cultures where the mentally ill are cared for by their families (and where there is not such ready access to medication) recovery rates are loads better.
    But then again, we don't know the full story. Maybe he had no family. Maybe they had their own set of problems. He was/is very young and it is all terribly sad, and I just wish things like this didn't have to happen... Hopefully there will be lessons learned.

  3. I just glanced at the news article again to check for mention of his family and saw a postscript that the BBC added yesterday. Apparently, the staff now say he actually bought the vodka himself, they didn't think they had the authority to take it from him, and told him to 'behave himself' before leaving him with his brother, as he was going to see his grandmother...
    Anyway, nothing can be done about it all now. Onwards and upwards.

  4. You are so right, Rossa--but it seems to me that families are encouraged to give up this duty to their relatives by the mental health care system, and in the case of children in the US, this also includes the Child Welfare system. Parents can lose custody of a child for nothing more than exercising their Constitutional Right to make decisions on their child's behalf---this is only supposed to happen in cases of neglect and abuse. There were no allegations of abuse and neglect,yet CPS took Mary Ann Godboldo's daughter in Detroit, Michigan. Her case is not unusual, except for the fact she attempted to stop CPS from kidnapping her child.