Every time there is a mass shooting in the news, one of the first topics of conversation seems to be mental illness. It is often assumed that a person would not be able to commit violent and horrific crimes unless they were also mentally ill. In reality, however, most people with mental illness are not especially violent.
While there is a huge need to increase funding for and access to mental health treatment in most of the United States, according to Mental Health America (MHA), linking violent events to mental illness unfairly perpetuates stigma against people with mental illness:
- 95-97 percent of gun violence is performed by people without a mental health condition.
- People with mental illness are up to four times more likely than the general population to become a victim of violence.
- It is estimated that gun violence would only decrease by about 4 percent if all mental illness were suddenly cured.
- 60-80 percent of deaths from firearms are suicides. People with mental illness are far more likely to commit suicide than a person with no mental health diagnosis, so the main reason to restrict a mentally ill person’s access to firearms is for their own protection.
How to Reduce Access to Firearms
If a person’s access to guns needs to be reduced, there are a number of ways that this can be done:
- A safe or locking mechanism can be purchased for any weapons that must remain in the home.
- Many police stations and gun ranges will store firearms.
- Many guns can be disassembled and are not able to be fired without key pieces.
- A trusted friend or family member can hold on to the firearm until any danger has passed.
- If you own a gun that has gone missing, immediately report it to the authorities so they can attempt to recover it.
If people with mental health conditions are not especially violent, then why are they frequently linked to horrific events like school shootings? The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that on the rare occasion that a person with mental illness is violent, there are often other factors that may be bigger predictors of violence than the mental illness. These factors may include:
- Co-occurring substance abuse disorder
- Adverse Childhood Experiences
- Being a survivor of child abuse or neglect
- Having an incarcerated parent
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Environmental factors
- Losing employment
- End of an important relationship
- Living in a violent neighborhood
One study cited by the APA found that 2.9 percent of people with just a mental health condition had committed a violent crime within 2-4 years of the study starting. For people with no mental health condition or substance abuse disorder, the number was 0.8 percent. Of those who were diagnosed as having both a substance use disorder and mental illness, the number jumped to 10 percent.
While it is important to treat mental health conditions, addressing substance abuse and preventing/treating childhood trauma are more likely to reduce violence.
Medical Conditions That Increase Violent Tendencies
Certain medical diagnoses are more strongly correlated with aggressive or violent behaviors. Scientists have linked the following medical conditions to increased violence:
- Brain injuries
- Degenerative brain diseases
- Brain infections
- Certain hormonal dysregulations
- Reactions to medications
- Environmental toxins
Mental Health Symptoms That Could Signal Violence
Research is still ongoing to understand how mental illness and violence intersect. The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study looked at over 1,000 mental health patients from the ages of 18-40 to determine which, if any, mental health symptoms might be linked to violence. This study found only two mental health symptoms that seemed likely to increase person’s propensity for violence:
- Command hallucinations – hearing voices that tell them to harm other people
- Psychopathy – lacking empathy and impulse control and showing signs of antisocial behavior
Outside of the MacArthur Study, it has been found that people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia may become violent at times.
Even these symptoms, however, did not guarantee that a person would become violent.
Overall, when compared to people from their same neighborhoods, most people with mental illness were about as likely to commit violent crimes as a person without a mental health diagnosis. This meant that in neighborhoods that were poor, unsafe and violent, the study participants were also more likely to be violent than in neighborhoods with greater access to resources, improved safety, and relatively low violence.
Treatment as Prevention
It may sound incredibly simple, but the best way to reduce violence among aggressive people with mental health diagnoses is to ensure that they are complying with their treatment plan. Patients with a tendency toward violence are often able to avoid aggression by taking their medications as prescribed and working with their treatment team on coping skills. Antipsychotics are one of the most common families of medication used to treat tendencies toward violence in people with mental illness.
If you have additional concerns about the overlap between mental illness and violence, the professionals at Highland Hospital in West Virginia are ready to help.