Misconceptions, crime and mental health disorders

Misconceptions, crime and mental health disorders

By Catherine Walker

It has, for far too long, been held as some kind of prejudiced fact that there is a link between mental health disorders and crime.  We read sensationalised headlines about dreadful criminal acts being perpetrated by the mentally ill.  These media reports only serve to perpetuate this misconception.

I myself as a journalist have had to cover such stories, and have even found myself using terms that in hindsight were insensitive and could be accused of perpetuating this myth, even though this was never my intention.

When referring to a crime where the perpetrator  had a mental illness, it is very easy to define the criminal as his or her diagnosis. For example 'paranoid schizophrenic kills inmate' is a headline that is deemed wholly acceptable by most media, however I can now see that running such a headline can be unhelpful. In doing so we are not simply defining two elements of the perpetrator separately, but creating the direct link between diagnosis and crime, as if they were mutually inclusive.

Below are some facts we could all learn from.

The facts

In 2008 the findings of a UK based study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry which, I feel, dispels the myth that the mentally ill are any more likely to commit offences than any other group of the population.  In fact, it demonstrates quite the opposite.

Carried out by researchers from Oxford University’s department of psychology and Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, the study looked at 13 years of date from Sweden.  Sweden keeps population data on mental health and crime.

The findings include results which show that people with severe mental illness are responsible for one in 20 violent crimes.

It was also found that 18% of murders and attempted murders were committed by people with a mental illness.

They found that there were 45 violent crimes committed per 1,000 inhabitants.  Of these, 2.4 were attributed to patients with severe mental illness, which also includes bipolar disorder and other psychoses.

This demonstrates that 5.2% of all violent crimes over the studied period were committed by people with severe mental illness.

15.7% of arsons were committed by people with such illness as were 7.5 of threats and harassment.

Under 7% of cases of assaulting an officer, 6.3% of aggravated assaults, 5% of sexual offences, 3.6% of robberies and 3% of common assaults were perpetrated by this group.

The forensic psychiatrist who led the research, Dr Seena Fazel, said ‘The figure of one in 20 is probably lower than most people would imagine.’

‘Many see those with serious psychiatric disorders as significantly contributing to the amount of violent crime in society.’

‘In many ways the most interesting aspect of our findings is that 19 out of 20 people committing violent crimes do so without having any severe mental health problems.’ he added.

A spokesman for the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health said ‘Having a severe mental health problem does not make a person violent.’

‘People with conditions like schizophrenia are, in fact, more likely to be the victims of violence than others in the population.’

‘This study shows clearly that people with severe mental health conditions commit a very small proportion of violent crimes and that the widely help prejudices about schizophrenia are inaccurate and unfair.’

‘It is now time to stop this stale debate about mental health and violence and start looking at how to overcome the prejudice and consequent discrimination that stop people with severe mental health conditions from having an ordinary life in our society.’

If we search further we can find other interesting and relevant information about the relationship between crime and mental health disorders.

On the schizophrenia.com website the facts about this subject are very insightful.  In America approximately 200,000 individuals with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness are homeless.  This figure constitutes one-third of the total homeless population based on data from the Department of Health and Human Services.  These 200,000 individuals comprise more than the entire population of many large US cities.

At any given time there are more people with untreated severe psychiatric illnesses living on America’s streets than are receiving care in hospitals. 

People with schizophrenia are far more likely to harm themselves than be violent towards the public. 

Violence is not a symptom of schizophrenia. 

Just because at times those who commit violent crimes also have a mental illness, this does not make the two elements related. Just as we may find a violent criminal is also a diabetic, or asthmatic, it would be very wrong to assume that the one contributed to the other, we must also pay the same respect to mental illness.

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