Finding Answers in Troubling Times

What Is the True Story about Mental Illness and Violence?

In the wake of so much senseless violence in our country, we are left trying to make sense of it. Why? Were there warning signs? Can a greater focus on mental health care prevent similar attacks? An article in the online magazine Vox explored the premise of whether an increase in mental health screening could accurately predict who will commit mass violence; not surprisingly, the article concluded that such a rare event is mathematically impossible to predict. In addition, research has shown that having a mental illness is not a predictor of violence.

Let’s examine the first issue. The Vox article asks us to imagine scientists inventing a machine that can predict with 99% certainty who will commit an act of mass violence. This machine would determine people’s intent and willingness to commit such a crime, as well as track their behavior online, their social connections, and purchasing decisions. Even if this imaginary machine really was 99% accurate, it would falsely label 1 out of every 100 people. Applied to all U.S. citizens, it would falsely identify around 3.2 million people as potential mass shooters or terrorists. In a world already marked by fear and distrust, can we imagine what would happen to our fellow humans that were false positives?

When it comes to people experiencing a severe mental illness, we don’t have to imagine what happens. In public perception, mental illness and violence are often closely intertwined. The false positives are people experiencing a mental illness who will never turn violent, but nevertheless have to face the misperception that they are dangerous. As a result of shame and fear, many people delay seeking help, often as long as six to eight years, despite the fact that effective treatments are available. The perceived association of violence with mental illness has received extensive attention and publicity, but in fact most violence in society is caused by people without mental illness. Perhaps surprisingly, individuals with a severe mental illness constitute a high-risk group vulnerable to become victims of violence in the community. Symptoms of a severe mental illness can include disorganized thought processes, impulsivity, and poor problem-solving, which can compromise a person’s ability to perceive risks and, as a result, may make them more vulnerable to physical assault.

Researchers have found that mental illness and violence are related primarily through the accumulation of risk factors. Past violence, juvenile detention, physical abuse, parental arrest record, substance abuse, age, sex, and contextual factors such as divorce, unemployment, or victimization are examples of risk factors found to be predictive of violence in people with and without a mental illness.

What Can You Do?

  • Speak Up. When you read or hear about a violent act, don’t presume the perpetrator was mentally ill. And if you hear negative stereotypes about a person with mental illness, speak up and encourage people to learn the facts.
  • Read Up. Learn the facts about mental health and mental illness by visiting Up2SD.org.
  • Follow Up. Encourage a family member or friend who is showing symptoms of mental illness to seek help. Follow up with them and offer support.
  • Open Up. Talk openly about mental health and mental illness.

Most importantly, we need to live our lives from a place of hope, not fear and distrust. In the long term, hope and connectedness are the best predictors of a future where we can thrive with our mind, body, and spirit.