Mental illness is the enemy, not its sufferers


Anthony Waterlow was arrested in bushland near Sydney on Friday. He was the 42 year old son of art curator Nick Waterlow, and sister of Chloe Waterlow. They were both violently killed at Randwick three weeks ago. Anthony Waterlow allegedly carried out the killing.

Anthony lives with a mental illness, and the killings are thought to be a consequence of this. The tragic circumstances, and how they are reflected to the community, invite reflection.

Father Steve Sinn related the following in his homily at the funeral of Nick Waterlow:

'"I was a child of the Sixties," Nick wrote in his diary, "the first generation not to be conscripted, and the first generation not to go to war."

'Nick spent the last twenty years of his life fighting a different kind of enemy. An elusive enemy that menaced him and his family. It was hidden and it had captured Anthony. It was frightening and violent. Nick tried every avenue for peace. He prayed, he sought advice; he never gave up on Anthony being freed. He hoped that his love and acceptance would deliver his son from the powerful forces that at times controlled him.

'He has been defeated. He underestimated his enemy.'

In an ideal world, we would hope that the media would frame mental illness and its consequences in a similar manner to Father Sinn. But few members of the public get to hear such a matter of fact description of what can only be described as a very sad set of circumstances.

It is the media that are the most influential agents in the construction of our attitudes to mental illness and its victims. Happily some media outlets are becoming more responsible in the way they report events related to mental illness.

The coverage of Anthony Waterlow's arrest in Saturday's Sydney newspapers was comparatively responsible. It provides a contrast with the Herald-Sun's shameful handling of the events that occurred early this month at the Thomas Embling Hospital at Fairfield in Melbourne, where an argument among residents led to two fatal stabbings.

The Herald-Sun reported that 'killers, rapists and other criminally insane patients are walking the streets of Melbourne on outings to the movies, fishing and shopping'. In its web poll, the paper asked: 'Should violent mentally ill offenders be allowed day leave?'

Barbara Hocking of SANE Australia points out that 'research suggests that those receiving effective treatment for mental health problems are no more violent than anyone else'.

A more socially responsible web poll question for the Herald-Sun would be whether governments should provide more resources for effective treatment of mental illness. Governments in various states are also culpable, as they have provided limited funds, and often treated mental illness as a criminal justice matter rather than a health issue.

In a further front page article headed 'This is madness', the Herald-Sun expressed outrage that Thomas Embling Hospital residents were being treated with dignity and not punished for suffering mental illness. In the Herald-Sun's mind, it was a scandal that they were being offered 'sushi meals, Wii fit classes and chill-out rooms with massage chairs'.

The Herald-Sun and other media have an excellent resource at their disposal in the mental illness reporting guidelines provided by the Mindframe National Media Initiative. These offer leads to documented evidence that people living with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators:

'It has been calculated that the lifetime risk of someone with an illness such as schizophrenia seriously harming or killing another person is just .005%, while the risk of that person harming themselves is nearly 10%.'

It's time for the Herald-Sun to take note.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Anthony Waterlow, Nick Waterlow, Thomas Embling Hospital, Herald-Sun, Steve Sinn, mental illness



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This insightful article should be shared. I have had this conversation with so many people over the past few weeks, as the search for Mr Waterlow continued. I have spoken to my teenage children regarding the perils of mental illness, and the relative dangers associated with it: that is, mainly to the sufferers and only sometimes to their families. It is disappointing that the media hasn't evolved as it should, to impart real and useful facts.

Sensationalism always sells papers I suppose. Thank you. As usual the voice of reason. intelligence and moderation (when we require it!). In the meantime I allow only one broadsheet a day into my home. No junk media is allowed on TV, radio or in print. My own meagre effort to shield my family from dangerous garbage.

Julie King | 30 November 2009  

Very well said, and shame on the Herald Sun, obviously the editor is one of the extremely rare and privileged few who have not been affected either by a close friend, family member or themselves, by mental illness. Appalling and inconsiderate as the majority of the Herald Sun readers would in some way have been affected and would not share this hard line archaic view. Ignorance must be such bliss.

Amy Strachan | 30 November 2009  

Those of us who have some experience of, and know the facts about mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia, recognise the truth, the compassion and the wisdom of Michael Mullins' article. For almost twenty years, I have worked voluntarily with organisations that have tried to enlighten the community with factual information about schizophrenia and to destroy the fantastic myths which surround it. Perhaps I despair too easily, but the comments I hear from the public on radio and in letters to the editor lead me to believe that I have worked to no avail. Calls for harsh penalties for tragic events abound. Discrimination and ridicule of those with mental illnesses are rife. The use by educated people of the word, schizophrenia, as a metaphor for ambivalent attitudes is perhaps a trivial, but very sad example of community ignorance. No one seems to know the simple fact that split or multiple personalities and schizophrenia are different illnesses! Michael you give just the tiniest bit of hope.

Sheelah Egan | 30 November 2009  

Thanks for a timely voice of compassion and understanding.

I hope people are listening.

RFI Smith | 30 November 2009  

Thank you Michael Mullins for your considered views on mental illness.

Congratulations Sheelah Egan for your very insightful email.

I,like yourself,as a sufferer of mental illness, used to despair about the public's ignorance. Now I don't seem to care. Those members of society who live in ignorance are the ones missing out. Mixing with other consumers and working in mental health has been a blessing and at times it has been for me an experience of the "Kingdom of Heaven" in our midst. I've dumped more so called "normal friends" than those with mental illness.
"A diamond with a flaw is better than a pebble without."

This is favourite quote of mine.
Take heart you have not worked to no avail.
Best wishes,


Anne | 30 November 2009  

Dear Editor, I just wish to thank you for the article on "Mental illness is the enemy". As much as I appreciate that you have questioned the way the media get their role all mixed up I am not sure I would speak with a person with a mental illness as "captured by the enemy" but as a person with a seriously chronic illness which we still do not understand and needs much more research finance.

Mary Gilchrist | 30 November 2009  

I am very impressed with this article and the way you have separated the illness from the sufferer. Time and time again I have been referred to as 'you're Bipolar'. No I'm not! I'm Nicci, but I do have an illness called Bipolar! It is truly a refreshing change to read an article like this. Well Done!

Nicci Wall | 04 December 2009  

Thanks fora balanced article, responsibily addressing a tragic set of events and the effects o mental illness. The article does you credit may I say.

scott | 28 December 2009  

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