Murder of a soldier in south-east London – a horrid event with some further nastiness in its wider repercussions.
Woolwich isn’t too far from my home, and as when Damilola Taylor was murdered (close enough to our old flat to have the home secretary interviewed on TV outside it), in the days and years after the event, people have questions about what they term the state of our ‘communities’.
In this week’s case the narrative is around religion and – taking in the English Defence League’s demonstration – race. Cue plenty of vox pop interviews from people in Woolwich along the lines of ‘what it’s been getting like round here’.
Today and yesterday’s papers are spread across my desk and the floor beside my chair. Acres of speculation and generalisation. What I cannot find anywhere though is speculation as to where mental health sits in this criminal act.
And at one level it strikes me as odd. This crime is a profoundly unnatural act – and for virtually all of us, every fibre of our being would fight against carrying it out even under duress. Not for nothing do warlords in conflicts need to drug their troops to carry out war crimes.
I therefore think it is not enough to rely on the story of, in one case, a member of a ‘Nigerian churchgoing family’ who converted to Islam and was ‘radicalised’.
If the issue is only one of an errant branch of Islamic thinking, I wonder why ‘terror imams’ decide that nasty deeds are matters for people other than them to perform – though for the record, ‘hate-preachers’ don’t sound so very well to me either.
I don’t want to rush to judgement on what lies behind this murder. But I do want to ask the question, because the truth is that mental health disorders are poorly accounted for in our criminal justice system.
And yet 70% of the UK prison population has two or more mental health disorders. And suicide rates are 15 times higher than in the general population – another act which the most basic instincts of almost all fight against.
What prevents the legal system and criminal justice generally from better reflecting the role of mental health disorders in crime?
Doing so would, of course, entail unpicking attitudes to crime and punishment – and convenient narratives like ‘clash of east and west’ – that are currently hardwired into politics, media and law.
If the problem is not Muslims fighting Christians, and if the cause of a terrible crime is not ‘evil’, but dysfunction, then ideas around the purpose of prison and punishment also start to unravel.
That would of course be something much harder to explain to victims of crime, their friends and family. And I’m not sure how taking greater account of mental health disorders in crime would go down with our judiciary, whose sentencing remarks in serious cases, reach for words like ‘evil’.
There are of course mental health reports on some felons. There is some consideration of whether a person is ‘fit to stand trial’. But if we really ‘got’ the role of mental health in crime, would our prisons population look the way it does?
Mental health is a subject that is dealt with badly in many other contexts – in the home, in the workplace, in the health service. Support services for mental health disorders fall firmly within the Cinderella part of any budget.
Given that, it’s perhaps small wonder that even in the wildest speculations available on the ‘cause’ of this terrible murder, as a society we are content avoid mentioning mental health altogether.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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