Victims or Perpetrators?

There are many myths associated in the public mind with mental illness and the one commonly thought of with people who have Bipolar disorder is that of being violent and delusional.

It seems that the old term of manic-depression is entrenched in the general publics’ mind with the term ‘maniac’ and the vision of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, or slashers running around in hockey masks just preying on helpless victims to terrorise and kill.

Now, it is true that crimes of violence are committed by people with a mental illness – but what is the real truth about violence and mental illness?

In this article there is summarised the results of just a few studies regarding mental illness and violence from a number of very respectable sources to allow a fair and unbiased assessment of the risk posed by those with a mental illness for you, the reader, to consider.

Firstly, from the Canadian Mental Health Association and it’s pamphlet – “Violence and Mental Illness”,

In today’s media reports about mental illness, there is a tendency to emphasise a supposed risk between violence and mental illness.  News stories regularly suggest that there is a strong connection between mental illness and crime.  In fact, people with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence.”

“Recent studies have showed that alcohol and substance abuse far outweigh mental illness in contributing to violence.  A 1996 Health Canada review of scientific articles found that the strongest predictor of violence and criminal behaviour is not major mental illness, but past history and criminality.”

On the question of does mental illness cause violence?  The CMHA does go on to say:

“Mental illness plays no part in the majority of violent crimes committed in our society.  The assumption that any and every mental illness carries with it an almost certain potential for violence has been proven wrong in many studies.

There is a relationship between violent behaviour and symptoms that cause the person to feel threatened and/or involve the overriding of personal control.  Examples of these criteria include specific symptoms such as command hallucinations and feeling that one’s mind is being dominated by outside forces.

Current research shows that people with major mental illness are 2.5 times (emphasis added) more likely to be the victims of violence that other members of society. This most often occurs when such factors as poverty, transient lifestyle and substance use are present. Any of these factors make a person with mental illness more vulnerable to assault and the possibility of becoming violent in response.”

The pamphlet goes on to stress that the pattern of violence amongst those with a mental illness is remarkably similar to those not suffering an illness. [1]

In the May 4, 2001 edition of the Psychiatric News published by the American Psychiatric Association, Aaron Levin wrote an article entitled, “Violence and Mental Illness: Media Keep Myths Alive”. [2]

In the article makes the following comments:

In popular culture, for anyone other than Canadian sports fans, the hockey mask is the badge of the psychotic axe murderer and, by extension, anyone with mental illness.”

He then goes to quote professor Otto Wahl, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at George Mason University in Virginia:

The hockey mask as a symbol of dangerousness and insanity has no basis in reality” said Dr Wahl, “It is solely a creation of Hollywood.”  Dr Wahl was speaking at a conference in March 2001 in Baltimore, “Spring to Action: A National Mental Health Symposium to Address Discrimination and Stigma”,  sponsored by the Center for Mental Health Services of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Dr Wahl went on to say that in reality, mental illness is a poor predictor of violence, ranking well after these factors: youth, male gender, history of violence, or poverty. Aside from people who abuse substances, people with mental illness commit violent acts at the same rate as non-patients, and 80 to 90 percent of people with mental illness never commit violent acts.

Dr Wahl, along with journalist Phyllis Vine, Ph.D., M.P.H., whose brother has schizophrenia blame the media for most of the misconceptions regarding mental illness and violence because of the disproportionate amount of news space biased to reporting of crime and particularly crimes committed by anyone with a mental illness.

Combine that with novels, movies and prime-time televisions showing ‘mental cases’ committing violent crimes.  Even children’s books like the Harry Potter series, one character is termed as “mad” and naturally a “danger to anyone who crosses him.”

Long time television researcher George Gerbner, Ph.D., a professor of telecommunications at Temple University, made these comments in the article:

“On television, 45 percent of all characters are violent, compared with 72 percent of the mentally ill characters – including women…… Mental illness is the only label on TV that renders women as violent as men.”

Given these sort of myths and downright untruths, is it surprising that not only do the mentally ill continue to be stigmatised and feared and in many cases internalise their illness for fear of being shunned, or worse, refrain from seeking treatment that could make a significant beneficial impact on their lives.

In an article entitled “Mentally Ill Attacked at Higher Rate” in 2000, Claudine Chamberlain of Associated Press wrote:

“When a schizophrenic man pushes a compete stranger into the path of an oncoming subway train and kills her, it’s easy to assume that all people with severe mental illness are violent or somehow dangerous.  But sensational cases like that of Andrew Goldstein, now under arrest in New York City for the Jan. 3 subway killing, are very rare.  The truth, experts say, is that most people who are mentally ill are no more violent than anyone else, And in fact, they’re more likely than others to be the victims of violent crime.

A new study by researchers at North Carolina State University and Duke University has found that people with a severe mental illness – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis are- are 2 ½ more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population.

Sociologist Virginia Hiday, who led the North Carolina study, studied 331 severely mentally ill patients discharged from psychiatric inpatient treatment.  Interviews revealed that 8.2 percent of them had been the victims of violent crime in the four months before they entered the hospital.  For the general public that figure would have been only 3.1 percent (emphasis added).”[3]

People with Bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses have enough of a burden to carry at times without the thoughtless, insensitive and often hurtful comments of the uninformed.

If you really want to find out for yourself that – to quote my favourite song: “I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell.  Then I invite you to take the time to check out articles from this bibliography.  Victims or Perpetrators?  You decide!

Graham Brown

8 August 2005

 

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Fact Sheet: Violence and Mental Illness.
  2. American Psychiatric Association. Washington, DC: Violence and Psychiatric Disorder in the Community: Evidence from the Epidemiological Catchment Area Surveys.
  3. Canadian Mental Health Association. (1993). Violence Against People with Mental Health Problems, by Jim Ward Associates. Toronto: Canadian Mental Health Association.
  4. National Mental Health Association. (1995).  National Mental Health Association Position Statement, Violence in America: A Community Response, Voices Vs. Violence, MHA Program Series, Vol. 1, National Health Association.
  5. http:www.namiscc.org/newsletters/April02/Violence.htm

 

[1] Canadian Mental Health Association.  (2003). Violence and Mental Illness.  www.cmha.ca

[2] American Psychiatric Association. (2001).Psychiatric News May 4, 2001. Volume 36 Number 9 p.10

[3] Mentally Ill Attacked at Higher Rate, Claudine Chamberlain – Associated Press 2000:  Reprinted from: http:www.namiscc.org/newsletters/April02/Violence.htm

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