Mental Illness and Violence: Misplaced Attention?


Recent events have brought the limelight to mental illness and its possible role in the violence our nation has witnessed. The attention means that mental illnesses are now a focus of the overall debate; and not in a positive way.

While it's true that some of those involved in recent mass murders did have a history of known mental illness (and even treatment for them), statistically they are the exception rather than the norm. In fact, research and surveys done in recent years have shown that those with mental illnesses are actually more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It's true that some types of mental illness do create a tendency towards aggressive and even violent behavior, but these are usually the types of illnesses that, sadly, are not diagnosed until after the attack.

Mental Illness, Crime and SSRIs

Many of those who have recently been accused of violent attacks did have a history of mental illness, but with one in five Americans having some sort of diagnosis, it's hard to say that this isn't just statistics playing out rather than mental illness being a causation.

In fact, the high rate of mental illness in the United States when compared to other developed countries is counteracted by our being one of the few that has a falling violent crime rate. The FBI and other crime watch institutions have agreed that the rate of violent crime in the U.S. has been falling for years, countering the sensationalized mass murders that have been showcased in the press.

What is a commonality amongst those who have been accused of committing mass murders recently and who also had a diagnosis of mental illness were the issuance of specific psychiatric medications. In nearly all cases where a mass murder was committed and the perpetrator had a history of mental illness, that person also had a recent or current history of taking seratonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It's known that these can cause some people to become aggressive if they are not properly managed, but the instances are so few that conclusive data is hard to come by.

The Media's Portrayal of Mental Illness

In the media, those with mental illnesses are almost always shown as being criminals, furthering the stigma faced by those who must deal with having a mental disorder. Despite the statistics that show mentally ill people contribute to only 3 to 5 percent of crime in this country (versus more than 50 percent with alcohol and even more with illicit drugs), the stereotype of the "crazy person" being the "bad guy" is all too common.

Mental Health American says that 60 percent of characters in prime time television with mental illnesses were shown to be involved in crime or violence. As recently shown, news reports also overwhelmingly seem to blame mental illness as being the cause of danger.

Pushing Back the Stigma

Brave mental health patients who are public about their illnesses and frank about how they affect them are on the front lines in the push to change society's mindset about the mentally ill.

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), men and women facing depression and anxiety, everyday people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and the rest of the everyday people who struggle with mental illness - and win - are changing the stigma.

Keep up the good work. The truth will win out.

Photo by John Nyboer

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