When Rebekah Brooks published her infamous headline "Bonkers Bruno locked up" in the Sun, she had little idea of the public opprobrium she would attract. She was forced to publish a 600-word reply from the mental health charity Sane very next day. I was as outraged as anyone, having spent the previous day with Frank Bruno. He had graciously agreed to open a new education facility at Brixton prison where I was governor. While it was clear that on this particular day one of our national heroes was ill, his presence was a joy that lifted everyone's mood. Like the majority of people with mental illness, Bruno had committed no crime; he was simply ill and the Sun reaction posed questions about public attitudes to mental illness.
Sadly, many people with mental illness are swept inappropriately into the criminal justice system. In 2009, the Labour peer Keith Bradley was commissioned to write a review of mental health treatment in prisons, yet three years on, the implementation of his recommendations is patchy and our jails are still overflowing with people suffering from all levels of mental illness.
When the system does work well, some mentally ill people guilty of even the gravest of acts can go almost immediately to hospital where they can get vital treatment. The tragic story of 36-year-old Alberto Izaga is a case in point. A successful insurance executive, Izaga was very quickly sectioned under the Mental Health Act after beating his two-year-old daughter to death in June 2007 and he remains in a secure psychiatric unit. It doesn't diminish the tragedy but it is an example of the mental health and criminal justice systems working together in a just and fair way. The case briefly hit the media headlines but the mood was one of family tragedy and bewilderment at how quickly mental illness can strike rather than one of outrage and revenge.
But consider two of the most notorious murderers in criminal history: Moors murderer Ian Brady and more recently, Anders Behring Brevik men whose actions will remain in the public psyche forever. Ian Brady spent 19 years in mainstream custody before he was eventually declared criminally insane and transferred to Ashworth Special Hospital. It is difficult to understand what could have changed in all that time. Subsequent physical attacks on him by other mental health patients have been almost revered by the populist press as rough justice, and since he effectively went on hunger strike 12 years ago, there has been much outrage over his campaign to kill himself. As someone defined as not of sound mind he was, and continues to be, effectively force fed. Brady campaigns to to be allowed to starve to death and were he still in prison, he would be allowed this most excruciating of deaths.
Norway now faces a similar dilemma over Breivik. The discussions about his sanity began at his arrest, no conclusion could be reached and the Norwegian public needed to come to terms with such brutality through a trial. It will be left to the court to determine his sanity or otherwise and the judgment is due in August. For the layman it is difficult to see how anyone capable of shooting 69 children one by one at point blank range could be sane. Norway will seek its own catharsis from the horror.
We struggle with all aspects of crime and mental health. While our laws and assessments may not be perfect, our system should not be changed according to a public mood as defined by a tabloid headline. If someone is ill and in hospital, even if it is a secure hospital, they should be treated as a patient. It is of course vital that families and victims are supported and that the public is protected, but while seeking vicarious revenge may sell papers, it is not the action of a civilised society.
*From The Guardian