Stop Blaming Mental Illness For Violent Crimes - MedCircle Blog
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January 6th, 2020

Stop Blaming Mental Illness For Violent Crimes

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Stop Blaming Mental Illness For Violent Crimes

Despite double-digit percentage decreases of violent and property crime rates in the U.S. since 2008, most people believe that crime has actually gotten worse during that span, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The disconnect is nothing new, though: American's perceptions of crime are often at odds with the data.

Leading up to the 2016 Presidential election, 57% of those who had voted or planned to vote said crime has gotten worse in this country since 2008, even though FBI and BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics) data shows that violent crime and property crime rates declined by double digit percentages.

What Is A Violent Crime In The U.S? 

According to the FBI, index crime in the United States includes violent crime and property crime.

Violent crime consists of the following:

  • murder

  • non-neglient manslaughter

  • rape

  • robbery

  • aggravated assault

Property crime consists of the following:

  • burglary

  • larceny

  • motor vehicle theft

  • arson

If violent crime has decreased, why aren’t we believing the statistics? Why do we feel less safe now than in 2008?

We are constantly bombarded with a 24/7 news cycles whenever a heinous act of violence is committed in this country or abroad. 

gun violence and mental health

Some reasons for our perceptions that crime is increasing may be due in large part to the following violent acts:

  • On December 14, 2012, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut , and killed 20 children, six adults, and himself.

  • By June, 2016, when a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando , Florida, led to 50 deaths, there had been 994 more shootings. Orlando was the deadliest mass shooting  in modern US history- until...

  • October 1, 2017, when a gunman fired into a crowd at a music festival on the Las Vegas strip, killing 59 people.

  • February 14, 2018, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17.  

We need an answer to why these atrocities are being committed; we need to blame something or someone for these horrific acts.

Whenever a violent crime occurs, one thing that happens with depressing inevitability is the accusation that the perpetrator was mentally ill. 

Mental Health and Acts of Violence

  • The father of the 31 year old man who crushed 86 people to death in Nice, France, told police that his son had suffered from a nervous breakdown. He had a history of violence and mental instability.

  • Omar Mateen, who gunned down people at an Orlando nightclub, claimed he was bipolar. There has never been any evidence to support that diagnosis, and having a bipolar condition would not explain his fascination with ISIS.

  • In Canada a 29 yr. old man opened fire on a street in Toronto hitting 15 people, killing two of them. His family issued a statement that he had long struggled with mental illness. 

Is Mental Illness to Blame?

In fairness, you can understand how mental illness can be blamed for these horrific acts. A vicious machete attack, random gunfire into a crowd, or mowing  innocent people down with a truck, do not seem like acts committed by a rational person.

Clearly, someone could not be “thinking straight” to commit such vile acts. In the aftermath, when information is gathered on the perpetrator, his or her past or present mental health becomes a talking point.

If there is any evidence that the perp sought help in the past for a mental health condition, then that explains the violent acts, right? 

Wrong.

As countless people have pointed out over the years, the link between mental illness and violent crimes, no matter what they are, has never been clear, no matter how many people assume it to be quite “obvious.”

This is a complex issue and can’t be explained in a single blog post. But there is data and research on this issue that can be explored. 

Violence and Mental Health: The Facts

Over a third of the American public think people with a mental health problem are likely to be violent. In fact, people with severe mental health disorders are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators of violent crime. 

A national survey found that 60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, while 32% thought that people with major depression were likely to do so. Although a subset of people with psychiatric disorders commit assaults and violent crimes, findings are inconsistent about how much mental illness contributes to this behavior and how much substance abuse and other factors do.

Triple-board certified forensic and clinical psychologist, Dr. Judy Ho, discusses depression and substance abuse in a series on MedCircle. She explains how the two conditions can be diagnosed together and how self-medicating from depression can sometimes lead to substance abuse. 

Every single time there is a mass murder in our country there are calls to fix America’s “broken” mental health system.

This is an unfortunate mistake based on a persistent myth that people with mental  illness are violent and that anyone who commits such a heinous act must be “sick.”

The truth is people with mental illnesses rarely commit homicide, and few homicides are committed by people with mental illness. Only around 5% of homicides are committed by people with psychotic conditions (schizophrenia for example). Again, people with mental illnesses are more likely to become the victims, not the perpetrators. 

Most mass murders are committed by people who are not seriously mentally ill, including the following:

  • People who commit purposeful acts of murder or manslaughter or who commit crimes that result in unintended deaths.

  • Perpetrators of domestic violence.

  • People seeking revenge.

Acts of Terrorism

Government studies on terrorism have shown that most terrorists are psychologically typical. The 9/11 terrorists were not all suffering from some form of psychosis, nor is it believed that Osama Bin Laden was deranged. Rather, intense feelings of perceived injustice, outrage, revenge or even love can potentially act as mechanisms to push people to extreme violence. 

terrorism and mental health

Understanding the links that can exist between psychological problems and radicalization may help counterterrorist experts to pinpoint those vulnerable to the terror recruiters and make them more likely to see the warning signs before a violent act occurs.

Weill Cornell Medical College Psychiatry professor, Theodore Shapiro, explains,

“Mental illness per se is not specifically associated with any form of social violence. Rather, some mentally ill (paranoid and impulsive) persons may seek out and join common radical causes as a vehicle for discharging their hate and distorted thinking.”

In addition, Shapiro added,

“Recent findings indicate that disorders such as PTSD, commonly associated with stress in a war zone or terrorism only occur in those who have histories of significant illness such as anxiety disorders & leading to depression. Thus the stressor is a trigger for onset of the radical form of the disorder and not the full cause.”

In other words, the disorder has to be present to become exacerbated by the stress. 

Watch Dr. Cheryl Arutt’s series PTSD and Domestic Violence on MedCircle. Dr. Arutt, a clinical and forensic psychologist, shares her understanding of each stage of domestic violence, from how to spot the signs, how to break from the cycle of violence, and  how to cope effectively with the PTSD that results from the abuse. 

Abigail R. Esman, an award winning essayist, journalist, columnist and author believes that "calling a  terrorist 'insane' or 'confused' frees him or her of responsibility for the act. They somehow become a victim, a sympathetic character, someone worthy of compassion. If a history of mental illness is joined with a potentiality for radicalization, this is information that security agencies should attend to better than they have to date. However, to conflate the two risks, normalizing terrorism as if it were any other form of violence, not the insidious, ruthless attack on our lives and our democracy that it is."

In its Global Study on Homicide, The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime recognizes multiple motivations for murder and divides homicides into three types: socio-plolitical, interpersonal, and criminal. However, murder by people with psychosis is so rare that it is included only as a footnote.

People with mental illness are far more likely to take their own lives that the life of another person, based on the evidence of increased suicide in our country. Suicide has increased 20% since the beginning of the 21st century and is now more than double the rate of homicide, which has declined by 12%.

Illusionary Truth 

Many people claim that mental illness is related to mass shootings from disparate political beliefs, for so many decades, and so many times, that it is easy to just accept the premise without questioning it. This is called “illusionary truth.”

However, there is no factual link between mental illness and violence against others.

Misleading statements about mental health and violence have real consequences. Haven’t we all seen the stigma associated with mental health disorders? This is the same stigma that often stops people from seeking the medical help they need. They also engender discrimination.

In 2015, a Kaiser Health poll found that 47% of Americans were “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable living next door to someone with a serious mental illness and 41% felt the same about working with someone with mental health issues. 

Mental illness is, regrettably, a rather loosely defined and loosely used term, and this contributes to the problem.

What Constitutes a "Mental Illness?"

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior. Associated with distress and /or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

Now, that definition can be applied to so many life stresses and situations - the death of a loved one, divorce, physical illness, trauma, etc. It can also include students with panic attacks at the idea of taking a midterm exam, and soldiers coming home with PTSD, or schizophrenics with full blown delusions.

Mental illness is an awfully big tent.

Now, what most people would likely think when they attribute mental illness with mass shootings are what mental health professionals call “serious or severe mental illnesses” - ie. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Severe Mental Illnesses and Violent Acts

The National Council on Behavioral Health came out with a 96 page report, a year in the making, that debunked the belief that mental illness causes mass violence. They stated that, “Simplistic conclusions ignore the fact that mass violence is caused by many social and psychological factors that interact in complex ways,” the report’s authors write. “Many, if not most, perpetrators do not have a major psychiatric disorder; and the large majority of people with diagnosable mental illnesses are not violent toward others.” 

mental health and acts of violence

People with mental illness have always been targets for scorn and blame.

In early America, they were demonized, locked in cages, and put on display in town squares as a form of cheap entertainment.

Ron Powers, author of “No One Cares About Crazy People,” (2017) says, “Vilifying people with mental illness in the wake of a mass shooting is in line with that historic cruelty. Blaming ‘mentally ill monsters for such carnage is a morally repugnant, a time tested device for shifting the public’s passion for safety away from gun control and toward the presumed demons in our midst.” 

Politicians, on both sides of the aisle, use these horrific events to sometimes promote their own agendas.

The false link between mental illness and violence has another deeply troubling public health impact. When we blame gun violence on mental illness-or video games, or assault rifles, etc- we create fear that keeps us from doing the hard work needed to make progress on both gun violence and improving our mental health situation in America.

Continuing to blame mental illness distracts from finding the real causes of mass shootings and violence in our society  and addressing them directly.

The U.S. mental health system, and our approach to mental illness, is far from perfect.

Even if we perfected treatment, we would not stop the current American gun violence epidemic.

In order to do that we need hard discussions and good research on other causes of the violence in our society. Blaming mass shootings on mental illness stops us from making forward  progress.

Other Sources:

Time Magazine


Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

Author: Margaret Colbeth

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