The mental health charity Rethink has lodged a complaint with Ofcom over a sketch by a comedian which parodied attempts to tackle stigma around mental illness.
Frankie Boyle, who is also under fire from AIDS and cancer charities over his television show, mocked an advert produced by the Time To Change anti-stigma project which is run by Rethink and Mind.
Organisers of the project, which is funded by Comic Relief and the Big Lottery Fund, say it has succeeded in changing attitudes around mental health and in reducing discrimination.
In part it seeks to tackle the stereotype which associates violence with mental illness and challenges the image of the 'violent schizophrenic' in movies.
The project has produced a trailer for a fake horror film called Schizo which leads the viewer into expecting a stereotyped view of schizophrenia. Ultimately the film shows someone with schizophrenia talking about his experiences while making tea in his kitchen.
In the Frankie Boyle sketch, shown on the Channel 4 show Tramadol Nights, a man says he has mental health problems and comments on the stigma surrounding mental illness. The camera then pans down to show four children dead and covered in blood.
Stuart Baker-Brown, 46, the actor in the original Time To Change video Schizo, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1996 and has since recovered.
“Stigma and discrimination can be just as harmful as the destructive symptoms of mental illness itself,” said Baker-Brown, “This sketch can do nothing but cause further harm”.
He added, “It is a shame Frankie Boyle has to act in such an insensitive and unintelligent manner towards those who suffer deeply and towards those who are far less fortunate than himself”.
In a letter to Ofcom, Mark Davies, Rethink’s director of communications wrote, “There is no causal link between mental illness and violence. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence.
He added, “Clearly, given that someone like Mr Boyle feels the need to mock the Time to Change project, we must be succeeding in at least raising the issue to a wider audience. But we cannot ignore the fact that this sort of thoughtless, insensitive stereotyping of difficult human experiences in the name of comedy blights the lives of those seeking to overcome mental illness.”
Davies emphasised that “Rethink fully supports freedom of expression,” but added, “Prejudice and discrimination around mental illness is one of the last taboos in our society and we are determined to do everything we can to tackle it”.
“One in four people have a mental health problem at some point in their lives,” said Davies, “This sketch caused offence to many people in this group”.
Violence, and particularly homicide, by people with mental illness is a very tiny proportion of violent crime and is exceptionally rare.
An academic study in 2004 found that, across the world, approximately one case occurred per every 14 million people per year. Only 4.3 per cent of homicides of strangers between 1996 and 1999 were carried out by people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Davies insisted that, “By inferring that people with mental illness are violent, the Frankie Boyle sketch was misleading”.