Panorama: A Prescription for Stigma

[Content warning: depression, discussion of suicide, psychosis]

BBC’s Panorama is not necessarily known for its unbiased and considered journalism, but even the most committed fan must have recoiled a little at last week’s offering. In “Panorama: A Prescription for Murder?” the series investigated the Aurora shootings in 2012, where twelve people were killed at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Somehow, Panorama extrapolated the case of murderer James Holmes to the millions of people worldwide who take antidepressant medications.

In the programme, it was claimed that psychosis is a possible side effect of SSRI medication – the most commonly used type of antidepressants – and that this psychosis could cause patients to become capable of murder. Much has been said about the documentaries stigmatising of the use of medication in the treatment of depression. It is true that there is still a stigma around antidepressants, which makes Panorama’s investigation even more irresponsible. But the criticism has a blind spot.

I am a long-term antidepressant user. I have also suffered from three psychotic episodes in my lifetime. Psychosis is defined by the NHS as “a mental health problem that causes people to perceive or interpret things differently from those around them. This can manifest as hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there) or delusions (a belief in something that is not true). My psychosis caused me to hear voices. Although I knew they were not real, this did not make them any less terrifying. The distress caused me to act out of character. I heard voices telling me that my friends hated me, and were conspiring against me. This only served to make me more paranoid and agitated. After days of hearing voices telling me to kill myself, I took an overdose.

This is where the public critique of the programme has fallen short. Psychosis does not drive someone to murder any more than antidepressant use does. The only person I almost killed while psychotic was myself. In the aftermath of a disaster such as the Aurora shootings, I often see friends stating online that their depression does not make them dangerous. For the most part, no one is saying it does. Psychosis on the other hand is seen as part of a separate category of mental illness – the ones that really make you dangerous. There’s an othering that is inherent in the way people with depression and anxiety defend themselves.

It is becoming far more socially acceptable to discuss depression and anxiety in public, but we’re falling short in other areas of mental health. Psychosis is often unintentionally weaponised by those defending depression sufferers. When you say that your depression doesn’t make you dangerous, there is an inference that other mental illnesses do. It’s an attempt to separate yourself from the truly ‘crazy’ ones; that you are one of the good mentally ill people.

People who suffer from psychosis aren’t dangerous, they are ordinary people dealing with bad mental health. During my most recent psychotic episode, I still attended university and was even involved with this magazine! If there weren’t so much stigma surrounding psychosis, perhaps I would have felt I could seek help earlier and my situation wouldn’t have escalated to a suicide attempt. It is vital that we speak out against stigmatising media such as last week’s Panorama. However, this can’t be at the expense of other people with serious mental health problems. Antidepressants are a lifeline for millions of people, so the outrage was understandable. However, tweeting that your SSRI has never made you psychotic is equally offensive.

“Panorama: A Prescription for Murder” provided antidepressant users with a small dose of the levels of stigma others endure every day. Maybe now, we can begin to tackle stigma for everyone suffering from a mental health problem.

[Molly Reed]

If you would like more information about the issues discussed in this article, you can find them here: (a UK-wide resource for those who experience hallucinations) (a Glasgow support group for those who experience hallucinations and/or self harm)  (an A-Z of mental health, including pages on depression, medication, and suicidal thoughts) (a Scottish charity that provides information regarding mental health, stigma, and your rights as a patient)

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