20 years of challenging hate #3: Hate Crime & Mental Health – Stuck in the middle

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Stop Hate UK Advocate James Gibbs talks about the intersection between Hate Crime and Mental Health, and the importance of holistic practice.

It was sunny outside when I took the call. A woman, whose location shall remain unknown to protect her anonymity, had contacted our helpline to report ongoing abuse and harassment she had experienced from neighbours.

“I am the most hated woman in the street” she told me with absolute certainty. Her neighbours had even told her so to her face, and she spent over thirty minutes explaining how almost ten years of hatred had led her to this belief.

She told me how she had been the victim of regular verbal abuse, noise nuisance and malicious allegations and that as far as she could see; the only reason for this victimisation was the fact that she had diagnosed mental health problems – “the local nutter” as people referred to her.

“I used to like the sunshine, but I don’t go out of the house anymore for fear of what they will throw at me next”

We take a lot of calls from people with mental ill health.

Most recent Government statistics show 1,985 reports of disability Hate Crime during 2013-14.  In the same year, Stop Hate UK took 459 reports where disability was a motivating factor.  A large proportion of these were related to mental illness, and whilst every one of these people will have their own experiences and their own stories, it never ceases to amaze me how many similarities there are.

One of the most striking similarities that I have seen working on the helpline is illustrated in the alarming frequency with which we take calls from people like the lady above; targeted because of mental ill health, victimised by those around them, but further victimised by a system and a culture that keeps them stuck in the middle for years on end, constantly searching for an outcome that both reflects the impact of their mental illness and tackles the hatred they have experienced.

Chih Hoong Sin talks very openly about the ‘importance of reframing hate crime beyond its narrow criminal justice focus’, and highlights mental health as a particularly important point of intervention.

My experience as an advocate with Stop Hate UK would lead me to echo this sentiment, and it is a philosophy that has been adopted by the charity throughout its 20 years of challenging hate; the importance of pursuing holistic approaches to Hate Crime and support for victims, combining criminal justice and positive action with social justice, understanding and empathy.

Far too often, people and agencies find it easy to dismiss the reports of somebody experiencing Hate crime that also experiences mental illness. Reports of Hate crime can often be seen as a manifestation of the victim’s mental illness. The woman labelled “most hated woman on her street” had been reporting incidents to the police for over 10 years when she spoke to our helpline. She also had the support of a psychiatrist and Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN). So why did she pick up the phone to us?

Every person’s experience of Hate Crime will be different and every person’s experience of mental illness will be different, and perhaps the trick we are missing lies within this melee of individual experiences.

The criminal justice system has developed tremendously over recent years, and from the grim issues highlighted in the Macpherson report there have been a lot of improvements, including recognising the importance of perception in Hate Crime, developing a strong focus on the needs of victims and working towards established practice in Hate Crime cases. Put simply, the criminal justice system understands Hate Crime.

Yet as budget cuts lead to more and more police time being spent in response to mental health crises, the reality in most cases is that police do not have the expertise or adequate time, to effectively support people living with mental illness. It is not their job.

Health & social care has also seen significant improvements, with the closure of long stay institutions and a move towards care in the community cementing the importance of person centred practice.

Yet, notwithstanding the ever increasing strains put on the NHS and local governments, Chih Hoong Sin also highlights that Hate Crime is an issue that remains relatively new to health & social care providers. Whilst work continues to address this, the truth is that at the moment there are a lot of overworked individuals and overstretched services for whom Hate Crime is not a priority.

This mismatch between criminal and social service’s understanding and approach to Hate Crime and mental illness, ultimately means that people who require the support of both can often feel stuck in the middle. Despite increasing efforts of partnership working, the reality for a lot of people we speak to can often feel uncoordinated and ineffective, leading to loss of confidence in the police and exacerbation of their mental illness.

Chih Hoong Sin identifies that within health & social care, ‘holistic care requires seamless care pathways, with effective referrals and signposting’.

Holistic support for victims of Hate crime is no different; the ethos of combining criminal justice with social support, in a way which recognises the impact of mental ill health in the context of Hate Crime, is what will ultimately lead us all to provide better support for people who find themselves victims, targeted because of mental illness.

It is an ethos that runs through everything we do here at Stop Hate UK as we support people through the criminal justice system, and an approach we continue in our work with the woman who was taunted as the “local nutter”.

She may have been stuck in the middle, but we have been right there with her, and it is my hope that as agencies continue to embrace this holistic culture, one day she will be able to enjoy the sunshine again.

You can read Chih Hoong Sin’s thoughts on the importance of Hate Crime within health & social care here: