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Mental illness does not equal violence

  • 22 February 2018


A popular horror film trope: you're stuck in an asylum and need to escape. The patients are out to get you. There's a villain with no clear motive for killing people, so it's revealed they were mentally ill all along.

Using mental illness as an explanation for criminality is everywhere. It's in movies like Split, TV shows like American Horror Story and a large number of video games. It's in cop shows like Criminal Minds, in which half of the criminals were shown to be mentally ill.

And it's not just fiction, news coverage also contributes to this perception. Though only 3 to 5 per cent of mass shooters have been diagnosed with a mental illness, in the wake of a mass shooting, a shooter's mental health history is often one of the first topics discussed. The stereotype is so ingrained that after the recent school shooting in Florida, Donald Trump said he would deal with 'the difficult issue of mental health', but didn't mention guns once in his speech.

These portrayals ignore that doctors and mental health advocates have been telling people for decades that mentally ill people are no more violent than neurotypical people. Statistically, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims than perpetrators of violence. Dr. Louis Kraus, the chief forensic psychiatrist at Rush University Medical College says, 'The concept that mental illness is a precursor to violent behaviour is nonsense.'

In regards to the link between mental illness and gun violence, a 2016 study published in Health Affairs, which focused on two Florida shootings, says that 'if gun violence is thought of mainly in terms of homicide, mental illness is a red herring'. It only becomes a public mental health problem when the definition of gun violence includes suicide and self harm.

The fact that mentally ill people aren't inherently violent isn't a new discovery, yet again and again our media reinforces the perception that violence is often caused by mental illness and therefore people with mental illness have a greater capacity for violence. Research confirms that the number of violent acts committed by mentally ill people is disproportionate to how widely covered it is on the news and other media.

This reinforcement contributes to feelings of shame in mentally ill people, and can prevent some from seeking treatment. It also has a negative social impact. According to Dr Heather Stuart in her article on mental health and the