People With Mental Illnesses Aren’t Actually More Prone to Violence

In the aftermath of the recent mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, Americans are once again considering the role that mental illness plays in violent crimes, and calling for improved care for the mentally ill to help reduce future gun violence. But although there are serious problems with the way mental illness and psychiatric disorders are treated in this country, future tragedies are unlikely to be avoided if improving mental health care is the only step this country takes to reduce gun violence.

It’s true that Jared Loughner and James Holmes — two men behind recent mass shootings in the United States — had documented histories of mental illness, but that isn’t enough evidence to make the broad conclusion that mentally ill individuals are predisposed to violent behavior or violent crimes. Despite popular perceptions, evidence actually suggests the mentally ill are no more prone to violence than the general population.

Between 92 and 96 percent of mental patients don’t have violent tendencies, and studies show the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes themselves than the criminal perpetrators. In fact, histories of substance abuse and other socio-demographic and economic factors are stronger determinants of violent behavior than psychiatric disorders. The contribution of the mentally ill to overall crime rates is an extremely low 3 to 5 percent, a number much lower than that of substance abuse.

Nevertheless, both the media and entertainment industry often depict the mentally ill as violent criminals. According to Mental Health American, 60 percent of characters in prime time television with mental illness were shown to be involved in crime or violence, and news reports overwhelmingly portray the mentally ill as dangerous.

At this point, it is unknown whether the shooter in Connecticut, Adam Lanza, is diagnosed with or was treated for any mental illness. Some reports have speculated that he may have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. But scientific experts agree that Asperger’s is not correlated with violent behavior.

— Greg Noth