Much has been written about the media's handling of mental health issues. We know from countless studies that mass media in the UK and abroad focus disproportionately on violent acts committed by people with severe mental illnesses while rarely considering the lives people with a range of mental health conditions lead.

We know, too, that public prejudice and ignorance contribute to the exclusion of those with mental health problems in many domains of human life.

Moral panics are a staple of life in societies across the globe. In the West, the mass media inevitably form their backbone, turning an intensive spotlight on groups of people who are felt to be a threat to the rest of us for a period of time before moving on to the next such target. People with severe mental illness have been the focus of this kind of attention on many occasions in recent years.

The latest such panic was triggered by a single, terrible event. The case of Darren Harkin, who raped a 14-year-old girl after escaping from a low secure hospital, was extremely disturbing. It would be foolish of any of us who campaign for fair treatment of people with mental health problems to deny that such events should be discussed in the media: of course they should.

Getting the balance right

The problem we face, however, is with the way they are handled and the way single events are bound up in inaccurate and outdated stereotypes. The case of Darren Harkin, for example, got such a lot of attention not just because it was shocking but because Radio 4's Today programme happened to have obtained figures about other "escapes" from medium and low secure wards and released them at the same time.

Put together, and in the absence of any contextual information, the two stories created the clear message that there may be many more Darren Harkins out there and that our "soft" system is putting us all at risk of violent attack because hospitals put potentially violent patients' human rights ahead of public safety.

With remarkable speed, a single event gets bound up in centuries of stored-up prejudice and misinformation. "How secure are our secure mental hospitals? Well the answer… is not secure enough," intoned John Humphrys on Today before embarking on an extremely aggressive interview with national director for mental health Louis Appleby.

"Patients' rights must not trump public safety," thundered the headline in The Times, while The Sun unblushingly referred to the "schizo killer" and the other 116 "mental patients" without a hint of context.

Challenging stereotypes

Lazy stereotyping - and not just in those sections of the media that are renowned for it - has a pernicious effect on everyone. While it would be simplistic to say that every word written in the media leads us all to think and behave in a certain way, we know that the drip, drip of messages about particular groups of people does shape our (mis)understandings about them and the way we relate to them.

It is now up to all of us who work in or campaign about mental health to get out there and combat these prejudices. They will not go away without an all-out effort to correct errors and engage in argument with those who repeat them, whether this is in the national media or at a very local level.

Unless we are robust, as Louis Appleby was on Today, we will never make the strides forward needed to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of millions of people having the chances they deserve in life.

See Care vs security in mental health services