It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate time to consider the impact of the media on British mental health policy. At the time of writing, the doubts increasingly voiced over the past five years about the effectiveness of community-based care for people experiencing mental distress have recently come to a head in the form of a press release from Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health in England and Wales, stating categorically that community care for this group has failed (Dobson 1998). While Mr Dobson's statement makes clear that the government does not intend a return to the previous model of institutional care, it does place emphasis, alongside other measures, on the need for more effective methods of ensuring compliance from those who resist voluntary engagement with the mental health services in order to protect both the public and themselves. At the same time a review of the Mental Health Act was announced to ensure that the proposed changes in practice will be backed up by changes in the law.
This emphasis on protection and compliance backed up by legislation is made more explicit in a speech delivered the following day by the Minister for Mental Health to the External Reference Group charged with developing a new national service framework for mental health (Boateng 1998). Here, the first aim of the government's 'new vision' for mental health is described as 'to protect the public and provide safe and effective care for those with severe and enduring mental illness'. In his conclusion, the Minister re-emphasised the need to win public confidence by making society 'a place of greater safety for those living with mental illness, be they patients, their carers or neighbours in the wider community' (our italics).
In the view of many people involved in the field of mental health, this emphasis on protection and public confidence, and indeed the revision of a policy which had historically received broad cross-party support since publication of the watershed White Paper Better Services for the Mentally Ill in 1975, is due in large part to the way in which the British mass media have reported and represented mental health issues since publication of the NHS and