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Fact vs myth: mental illness & violence

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No mental health myth causes more harm than the nonsense that people living with mental illness are violent. Here are the facts.

People living with mental illness are no more violent than other people

Maybe the most harmful baseless myth about mental illness is that it makes you violent. Movies, TV, games and even the news often tell us a false, highly stigmatising story that people experiencing mental illness are violent.

It’s not true. Research consistently shows there is no evidence that people living with mental illness are generally more violent than anyone else.

People living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than other people

Rates of violence against people with mental illness are much higher than for the general population, especially those with complex mental illness and psychotic illnesses. People with mental illness are also more at risk of homicide, suicide and self-harm.

‘Psychotic’ does not mean ‘violent’

Violence is not a symptom of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia. The causal link between psychosis and violence is inconclusive.

There is a slightly higher likelihood of violent behaviour among people with psychotic illness, but analysis of many studies suggests that this may be more the result of abusing drugs or alcohol, not receiving proper treatment or having a history of violent behaviour which is independent of the illness.

More accurate predictors of violence

Among the strongest risk factors for aggressive behaviour are:

  • being male
  • being a young adult
  • having had a troubled childhood
  • having problems with drug and especially alcohol abuse.

This doesn’t mean that people like this are all violent, or that other people can’t be violent. But crime statistics show that these factors have a much stronger influence than mental illness over a person’s likelihood to act violently.

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The facts vs myths factsheet series

References

Stuart, H. (2003). Violence and Mental Illness: an Overview. World Psychiatry. Volume 2(2), pp.121-124.

Peterson, J., Kennealy, P., Skeem, J. Bray, B. and Zvonkovic, A. (2014). How Often and How Consistently do Symptoms Directly Precede Criminal Behavior Among Offenders With Mental Illness?. Columbia University; Law and Human Behavior, online April 15, 2014

Sarah L. Desmarais, Richard A. Van Dorn, Kiersten L. Johnson, Kevin J. Grimm, Kevin S. Douglas, and Marvin S. Swartz. (2014). Community Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults With Mental Illnesses. American Journal of Public Health: Volume 104(12), pp.2342-2349.

Hiday, VA., Swatz, MS., Swanson, JW., Borum, R. and Wagner, HR. (1999). Criminal Victimisation of Persons with Severe Mental Illness. Psychiatric Services. Volume 50(1), pp.62-68.

Dolan MC, Castle D, McGregor K. (2012). Criminally Violent Victimisation in Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders: the Relationship to Symptoms and Substance Abuse. BMC Public Health. Volume 12(445).

Hiroeh, U., Appleby, L., Mortensen, PB., Dunn, G., (2001). Death by Homicide, Suicide, and Other Unnatural Causes in People with Mental Illness: a Population-Based Study. The Lancet. Volume 358(9299), pp.2110-2112.

Hiday, VA. (2006). Putting Community Risk in Perspective: a Look at Correlations, Causes and Controls, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. Volume 29(4), pp.316-331.

Fazel S, Gulati G, Linsell L, Geddes JR, Grann M. (2009) Schizophrenia and Violence: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. McGrath J, ed. PLoS Medicine. Volume 6(8).

McDonald, D. and Brown, M. (1996). Indicators of Aggressive Behaviour. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, p.2.

 

Content last reviewed: 10 October, 2016

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