Using mental illness as an insult – Mick Philpott, Jon Snow & lunatics

4 Apr

Jon Snow twitter profile pic

We’ve all done it: casually thrown around as insults terms related to mental illness. This evening, Jon Snow, Channel 4’s lead news anchor, posted a blog in which he used the term “lunatic” as an insult in the tragic Philpott case. When picked up on it, Snow swiftly apologised and earned brownie points for doing so. At present, however, Snow’s blog post still contains the term.

The problem with calling someone convicted of manslaughter a lunatic is that lunacy is a synonym for insanity, a legal defence to murder; its use in relation to the Philpott case is sloppy and inaccurate. And the trouble with casually using terms related to mental illness to insult people is that it turns mental illness into an insult.

As background, Snow’s blog post was in reference to distasteful and misleading political posturing reported during the day. Various pundits and politicians (in particular the Chancellor, George Osborne, later endorsed by the Prime Minster, David Campbell) sought to capitalise on the sentencing of the Philpotts and their friend for the manslaughter of 6 children. (Take a look at the links at the foot of this page to explore the subject further.) To take one example of the coverage, the Telegraph newspaper said:

“The Chancellor has questioned why British taxpayers should be “subsidising lifestyles” such as those of Mick Philpott, who was today sentenced to life in prison for killing six children. Mr Osborne made the controversial comments during a visit to Derby shortly after Philpott and his wife Mairead were handed their sentences for intentionally setting fire to their home. Asked whether the Philpotts were a product of Britain’s benefit system, Mr Osborne said: “It’s right we ask questions as a Government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidising lifestyles like these.”

Jon Snow has, in addition to his platform on a national broadcaster, nearly 300,000 twitter followers. He also introduced Channel 4’s 4 Goes Mad mental health season. He’s influential. Earlier this evening, I saw a tweet of his containing a link to a post on his Snow Blog about the tragic Philpott case. Snow’s post was titled: Can abnormal behaviour affect the welfare policy debate?

Snow, in a strongly worded rebuttal, asked whether there really was a case for regarding Mick Philpott’s behaviour as a valid ground for reforming welfare policy. He referenced, amongst others, statistics showing there were just 50 families in the UK with the same number of children as the Philpotts.

Philpott is not representative of people who are currently in need of the state safety net due to ill health, lack of private pension or inability to find paid work. And of course it is highly distasteful to use the tragedy of the deaths of 6 children for political purposes. Snow’s blog was robust and well-written, apart from this, which caught my eye:

“The idea that an entire system should be re-jigged to cope with a lunatic who burnt to death half the children he’d fathered seems questionable at the least.”

Here, Snow uses the word “lunatic” as an insult, in order very deliberately to convey the deepest disapproval. The trouble with using terms related to mental illness as insults – especially when it’s done by a figure as prominent as Snow – is that it’s just this sort of casual stigma that adds to the big fat stigma pie we’re being served extra helpings of at the moment.

As I then tweeted:

Disappointed @jonsnowC4 refers to Philpott as a “lunatic” when he was judged criminally responsible #casualstigma

Snow swiftly responded:

I apologise..that was sloppy of me.

And, in a response to another tweep, Snow tweeted:

I’m sorry the word ‘lunatic’ was very absuive [sic] usage..thoughtless..I should know better

I tweeted in response:

Credit to @jonsnowC4 for apologising so quickly for calling Philpott a lunatic. (Wish I was so good at apologising when I stuff up.)

Snow received plaudits for his quick apology, as my Storify of tweets shows. His fans hold him in even more affection now. For example, Rich Humphrey (@RichMHumphrey) tweeted:

“completely agree! Few in the media would hold their hands up like that. Even more respect for him now”

Finally, I also asked Snow:

Could you tweak the blog to remove the reference to lunatic? That’d be good.

At present, the blog has yet to be revised. Fingers crossed. There are so many expressive insults in the English language that there’s really no need to resort to using references to mental health as insults.



web links 5Links related to the story above


Links on the debate about what (if anything) the Philpott case tells us about welfare benefits, in light of the notorious Daily Mail headline (pictured below right) and George Osborne’s subsequent comments:

Firstly, coverage on 4th April:

Coverage from later dates (added to this blog subsequently):




13 Responses to “Using mental illness as an insult – Mick Philpott, Jon Snow & lunatics”

  1. Genuinely Curious 5 April 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    Just for reference, is there a good single word that sums up one who behaves in a massively irrational way, like a “lunatic”, but without any relation to mental health?

    • Sectioned 5 April 2013 at 6:02 pm #

      The best insults fit the situation and the person. Are you looking for something ahead of time so you have it to hand, ready to go?

    • theboxticker 16 April 2013 at 10:25 am #

      How about ‘irrational’? You said it yourself! 🙂 There is also perhaps ‘strange’ or ‘unusual’ or ‘weird’ – if those words aren’t too weighted. Thesaurus also showed me ‘bizarre’, ‘deviant’, ‘odd’, ‘absurd’, ‘erratic’, ‘flaky’ ‘daft’ ‘unreasonable’… the list goes on! I love words.

  2. THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) 6 April 2013 at 2:07 am #

    We don’t – any more – have a Lunatics Act, but a Mental Health Act. The tests about whether someone is criminally responsible are not concerned with lunacy, but insanity.

    Look at me, I’m being a lunatic, doing crazy things, acting wildly – even with a diagnosis, I find it tenuous to say, as opposed to someone saying You’re mad (and meaning it unpleasantly), that any of these are really to do with issues of or stigmatizing mental ill-health.

    You’re being a bit wacky, off the wall, frisky to-day… Calling someone who had a scheme as wild as what I gather this one to have been (start a fire to look like a hero in a rescue) is not only endangering others for no good reason, but also behaving irrationally.

    How is calling someone a lunatic who believes in such a scheme obviously anything to do with mental health any more than any other person taking a clear risk of seriously harming others, e.g. overtaking at speed in a city busy with pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers ?

    • Sectioned 6 April 2013 at 12:36 pm #

      Thanks for your comment.

      As I mention above, the problem with calling someone convicted of manslaughter a lunatic is that lunacy is a synonym for insanity, a legal defence to murder, so its use in relation to the Philpott case is sloppy and inaccurate. Philpott wasn’t charged with murder and his defence team did not raise mental health problems as being exculpatory or mitigating factors.

      And the trouble with casually using terms related to mental illness to insult people is that it turns mental illness into an insult. Since I tweeted that, it’s been retweeted countless times.

      Society is gradually evolving to recognise that certain insults are beyond the pale. It used to be okay to say “That’s so gay” as an insult. Most of us have come round to the idea that homosexuality is not to be used as an insult. Hopefully it will come to be seen to be unacceptable to use mental illness as an insult too.

      Philpott (and his wife and friend) was found criminally responsible and was convicted of having committed a truly heinous crime. The judge’s comments made clear he was a cruel, calculating misogynist who abused women physically and emotionally for decades. Don’t try to dilute his criminal responsibility – or tarnish the perception of mental health – by equating his behaviour with mental illness.

  3. Vicky 6 April 2013 at 7:33 am #

    i think using the term Lunatic is fine. I worry about being over politically correct with this sort of stuff…it discredits real stigma.
    The real stigma here is using Philpott to represent people on benefits.
    The usage of the word lunatic is now slang and I think perfectly fine. Please lets not get too caught up on this type of thing… but rather the real issues. Excellent article otherwise

    • Sectioned 6 April 2013 at 12:52 pm #

      Using mental illness as an insult isn’t “real stigma”? Wrong. Using mental health terms as insults is “perfectly fine”? Wrong. As Ian Mayes of the Guardian newspaper said in 2008:
      “We stand in relation to some aspects of mental health – particularly in the way we refer to mental illness, in the language that we use and misuse – roughly where we stood in relation to race 20 or 30 years ago.”

      Your comment goes towards illustrating that public attitudes towards mental health and stigma are entrenched, just as they were around other issues previously dismissed as being “overly politically correct”. Hopefully, gradually, attitudes will evolve – with help from campaigns like Time to Change which seeks to educate, enlighten & challenge. In the meantime, it is worthwhile challenging mental health stigma when encountered.

      • gettingwellstayingwell 6 April 2013 at 8:16 pm #

        Im entitled to my opinion, I’ve spent years out of work due to breakdowns. I don’t agree with stigma but i disagree with your stance on the word lunatic as I do not think it used to describe a mental health disorder any more. Had he used the word schizophrenic or bipolar I would agree. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
        I know all about time to change but i still disagree with this.

      • Sectioned 6 April 2013 at 10:25 pm #

        Thank you for taking the time to comment further. How about writing about this on your own blog, where you can develop your ideas further, rather than simply responding to my points? You seem to have thought about this carefully.

        I’ve set out my view above, which is that the problem with casually using terms related to mental illness in order to insult people is that it turns mental illness into an insult. “Lunatic” is a term related to mental illness and here it was used – very deliberately – as an insult. That’s why Jon Snow took the trouble to swiftly apologise and, in doing so, he described it as “abusive” and said “I should know better”. And, looking to Time to Change for guidance, “lunatic” is one of the terms highlighted in the online guide I link to above.

        Sometimes stigmatising views are so engrained that we don’t even notice we’ve absorbed them: they seem normal and accepted ideas. That’s one of the reasons Time to Change is finding it so hard to produce significant changes in public attitudes in the second phase of its campaign. It’s a shame.

        I’ll look forward to seeing your own blog post if you decide to write it in future. Good luck!

    • THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) 7 April 2013 at 1:05 am #

      I’m very much inclined to agree with you, and not with Sectioned, that ‘lunatic’ is really very, very old news, and not ‘a mental health term’ any more : how many people, with or without an experience of mental ill-health, consider it that way, and what merit is there in ‘reclaiming’ it ?

      As the whole context of this debate is ‘insults’, I have written – as suggested to another person leaving a comment – a posting on my blog, which starts by talking about how to insult someone (as it happens, David Cameron, which I think is “perfectly fine”) :

      The Agent Apsley’s blog

      • theboxticker 16 April 2013 at 10:36 am #

        Lunatic most definitely IS still used in colloquial language to mean mentally ill. I have heard far too many “jokes” from friends which refer to being ‘locked up in a lunatic asylum’ or putting somebody ‘in the loony bin’.

        What merit is there in reclaiming it? I’m not sure that was being suggested as a solution anyway, but you could ask the same question about any reclaimed word. It empowers the oppressed.

  4. theboxticker 16 April 2013 at 10:34 am #

    I agree with you, Sectioned. I agree entirely that this DOES matter. Try to find a synonym for ‘lunatic’ that isn’t related to mental illness. In fact, I’ll let do the talking…

    Main Entry: lunatic
    Definition: crazy, mad
    Antonyms: healthy, sane, sensible

    Even if it is not used directly, there is still an implication that people with mental illness are somehow similar to criminal ‘lunatics’.

    Inspired by what you said, I wrote a bloget about the use of slurs derived from the oppression of minority groups, (I promise it is not as dry as that sentence implies..!). Here’s the link, in case you’re interested to have a read.



  1. Adjust your medication | Sectioned - 1 October 2013

    […] Using mental illness as an insult – Mick Philpott, Jon Snow & lunatics – an earlier blog post (April) – “There are so many expressive insults in the English language that there’s really no need to resort to using references to mental health as insults.” […]

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