The myth of mental illness and violence

Posted on September 17, 2016

Photo: flickr

On 24 March 2015, Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into the French Alps, killing all 144 passengers on board and six crew members. In the days that followed, investigators began to suspect that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had deliberately downed the plane - and when it emerged that Lubitz had a history of depression some questioned whether pilots with similar mental conditions should be allowed to fly.

Time to Change, a campaign to end mental health discrimination run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, issued a statement urging the public to avoid assuming that all people with depression would act as Lubitz had done. The campaign's own statistics suggest such assumptions might be prevalent: they say that more than one-third of the public believe that people with mental health problems are more likely to be violent.Violent crime statistics tell a different story, though. One survey suggested that only 1% of victims of violent crime believed that the incident occurred because the offender had a mental illness. In the UK, between 50 and 70 cases of homicide a year do involve people known to have a mental health problem at the time of the crime - but these perpetrators make up a tiny minority of the 7 million people in the UK estimated to have a significant mental illness at any given time.

So people with mental illness are very unlikely to commit murder. But what about more everyday violence? One of the most frequently cited studies comes from the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, conducted back in 1998 in the United States. More than 1000 people were followed up every 10 weeks for a year after they left a psychiatric inpatient ward. They were compared with people living in the same neighbourhoods who hadn’t been in hospital. Generally speaking there was no difference between the two groups in terms of the levels of violence they perpetrated - unless drugs or alcohol were involved. Both former patients and other people in the neighbourhoods were more likely to behave violently if they showed signs of substance abuse - and the mental health patients were more likely to begin abusing substances than the other people in the community. But mental illness alone was not enough to make people more violent.

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Category(s):Aggression & Violence

Source material from BBC