Violence And Mental Illness: Shattering The Myth, Removing The Stigma [Study]

It’s almost inevitable in today’s media landscape that people who commit horrific crimes are labeled as mentally ill. This trend has allowed many sane criminals to either walk free or be given lighter sentences than what they deserve. Now, mental health experts are challenging this narrative.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have released a new report, claiming that the media misportrays mentally ill people as violent. The opposite is true, according to their research, as people who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims than violent criminals. For the mentally ill population, this ongoing media narrative is setting up a dangerous environment. Recently, study leader Emma E. McGinty, Ph.D., MS, from John Hopkins explained the issue to CBS.

“This is very problematic because the research evidence shows that people with mental illness are almost never violent toward other people and most violence in the United States is not caused by mental illness. So the fact that so much news coverage about mental illness focuses on violence toward others really potentially creates a misconception in the public’s mind about how closely linked mental illness and violence are and also likely increases social stigma towards people with mental illness.”

Lately, the media has tried to link mental illness to gun violence, another misconception that doesn’t stand up to the scientific evidence. At Duke University, researchers have called this narrative a myth.

[Image via Getty Images/Illa Yefimovich/Stringer]
[Image via Getty Images/Illa Yefimovich/Stringer]
“We have a strong responsibility as researchers who study mental illness to try to debunk that myth. I say as loudly and as strongly and as frequently as I can, that mental illness is not a very big part of the problem of gun violence in the United States.” says Jefferey Swanson, Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University

The misconception appears to stem from the idea that murder and other violent acts go against human nature, meaning someone has to be out of their mind to commit such crimes. Though scientists at John Hopkins agree that people who murder are “not mentally healthy,” they urge the media to acknowledge the difference between a mental illness that requires ongoing clinical treatment and psychological mental illness that can be treated with therapy. According to McGinty, in some cases, an unhealthy mental state is temporary and is caused by emotional or environmental factors.

“It could be that there are emotional issues at play, that there’s anger that is driving this. Social isolation could be a factor, or there could be substance abuse going on. There are a whole host of other factors that even if you were to get them into the mental health treatment system, mental health treatment would not erase those factors.”

The John Hopkins study which is published in the June issue of Health Affairs looked into media coverage from 1995 to 2014. During this time period, 55 percent of news mentioned mental illness when covering violent crimes, even though, most of the time, the hardened criminals were not mentally ill. Instead, McGinty and her colleagues draw attention to a more important topic — untreated mental illnesses.

Highlighting the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, McGinty makes a point about the availability and success of treatment for mentally ill individuals in America. The Tucson shooter who suffered from schizophrenia would not have performed such an act if he was on the proper medication. Failure to treat schizophrenia almost always results in psychotic episodes, similar to the Tucson shooting. In reality, only 4 percent of violent events are a result of schizophrenia.

The Tucson case is, in some ways, an isolated event. Though people are killed at the hands of frantic people every day, only a few of those disheveled personalities would be diagnosed with a clinical mental illness. McGinty stresses the importance of separating violence and mental illness in media conversations.

[Feature image via Getty Images/Raya Diaz/ Stringer]