Risk to those suffering with mental illness vs the risks they cause

by Jenna Robinson

It’s not uncommon when we read the newspapers or watch the news that when violence has been committed towards a member of the public it is often linked to the perpetrators state of mental health. Often the media will link violent behaviour with those who are mentally ‘unstable’ who appear to attack strangers, they make it seem as though it is extremely common when in fact it is not. It is important to emphasise that this is a perception rather than a fact, because research evidence strongly suggests that there has not been an increase in homicides by people experiencing mental health problems.

This has contributed to the ‘fear factor’ about mental health and these stories promote the need for public safety against the mentally ill, enforcing the danger from those who suffer from mental ill health. Is this fair? What about the risk to those who are ill, what about their safety? Mental health asylums were more about protecting the public by keeping those who were ill inside away from the risk of being a danger to others, although it appears that their own risks and safety were less important.

When those who are unwell are so isolated from society there are even more risks to their wellbeing. One may feel alone, losing their identity and now simply labelled as mentally ill. This can therefore lead to deep feelings of depression, or seeing themselves as a failure in society and they may even be at risk to themselves physically, for example self harm or even suicide. Service users may also leave treatment without the appropriate after care and are therefore at risk of relapsing.

The debate about the supposed link between mental distress and the risk of violence to other people is fraught with difficulty. I have read the following information during my ‘Challenging Ideas in Mental Health’ course:

 “studies do consistently show that the vast majority of people who act violently in our society are not experiencing mental distress. The main risk factors for violence are being male, young, less well-off and under the influence of alcohol. Equally, the vast majority of people who do experience mental distress, or have a history of it, never behave violently. To this extent, the link between mental distress and violence is very weak.”

The narrow focus on the risk of violence has serious implications for service users and their everyday experiences of services and professionals. As well as the media perpetuating a negative image of mental health service users it also means that other risks that are just as real and pressing tend to be neglected.


Are you sure asylums were all about protecting the public? Weren't there economic factors and the removal of the burden of care on families factors too? The asylums were built pre-medication/drugs which have enabled people to leave the asylum and live in the community under the protection of Community Mental Health Teams (CMHT), though critics have said these teams were under resourced and left people abandoned.

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