Criminalizing Mental Illness

The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas brings up an issue that I refer to from time to time, and that is the casual – even reflexive – linking of violent crime and mental illness.

The facts of the case have been comprehensively reported in the media. And that same media has objectively reported statements (mostly from law enforcement spokesmen/women) like this: “There is no indication yet that mental illness played a role in this tragedy.”

This leads many media consumers to ask themselves if all mass murderers are mentally ill; the barbarity of the act of mass murder makes this question somewhat understandable.

Is murder a crazy thing to do? Yes, of course it is. They are acts we can safely call crazy. But is a conceptual mistake to retro-fit people with illnesses based on our judgment of the sanity of their acts.

Now, this not a diatribe against the media. Reporters duly – and quite properly – report on what is said at press conferences following incidents of violent crime, but it is up to media consumers to blend in what is said with what is known – and indeed to seek out what is known.

This is because to passively accept an unproven correlation between violent crime and mental illness does a disservice to those who live with an illness by creating a stigma.

There is not a lot of available data in the mainstream media about possible links between violent behaviour and mental illness, likely because mental health issues rarely make the airwaves or the pages of our newspapers. But it can be found if one looks hard enough.   And when one does, the evidence tends to refute the conventional assumptions.

According to one American study I found, roughly one in five people will suffer a mental illness at some time in their lives, while people with serious mental disorders account for only about 4 percent of violent crimes over all.

The study, and others like it, showed most serious violent crimes, including those such as the outrage in Las Vegas, are committed by white, working-class men who’ve been jilted, fired, or otherwise humiliated — and who then undergo a crisis of rage and get out one of the 300 million guns in the USA and do their thing.

Then there is the unsurprising link between upbringing and later violent behaviour. It has been shown that domestic violence and abuse in childhood are strongly correlated with anti-social – and in many cases, violent – behaviour in adulthood.

If there is any upside to the unwarranted linking of mental illness to crime, it is that it should cause us to focus our attention on a system that has been bled dry of funding and that is hard-pressed to care for its clients.

This, in turn, should cause each of us to do two things:

First, we owe it to ourselves and our community to educate ourselves about the reality of mental illness. There are many resources available. A good place to start would be the Canadian Mental Health Association website, which is at www.cmha.ca

The second thing we can do is lobby our provincial representatives to increase funding and support for folks living with a mental illness.

A little knowledge and political action can go a long way.

1 Comment

  1. Well-said, Hugh! I’ve seen great emotional violence inflicted on individuals who are in need of and who seek help for non-physical distresses, thanks to cruel people who find them easy targets for bullying, thanks to media stereotyping and ignorant, ‘fast-food-type’ mob mentalities.

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