The Link Between Mental Illness and Violence Is Inaccurate and Unfair



American fashion designer Kenneth Cole recently posted a billboard prominently displayed over Manhattan’s West Side Highway that reads: “Over 40M Americans suffer from mental illness. Some can access care … All can access guns” with hashtags #gunreform and #areyouputtinguson.

Once again, an uninformed celebrity type has used his influence to further stigmatize those with mental illness.

I fully expect him to be jumping on Oprah’s couch next week advising the public if they embraced Scientology or possessed a pair of running shoes, there would be no need for psychiatric care.

American Psychiatric Association President Dr. Renee Binder made a public statement about the billboard, saying it unfairly linked mental illness with gun violence and the need for gun control. “It provides the gross misimpression that people with mental illness are violent,” Binder said. “The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent and most acts of violence are not committed by people with mental illness.”

However, it is difficult to ask Cole to revise his thinking when most Americans are right there with him. As psychology journalist Maria Konnikova explains in a New Yorker piece, the overwhelming majority of us still feel that most violent behavior is connected to mental illness. She writes:

As recently as 2013, almost forty-six per cent of respondents to a national survey said that people with mental illness were more dangerous than other people. According to two recent Gallup polls, from 2011 and 2013, more people believe that mass shootings result from a failure of the mental-health system than from easy access to guns. Eighty per cent of the population believes that mental illness is at least partially to blame for such incidents.

Eighty percent.

If I’m paying attention, I hear about one inaccurate statement a day regarding violence and mental illness. Recently, after I wrote a post about the mistakes I made tapering off an antidepressant, I heard from a woman who was alarmed that I would discuss weaning off drugs, and therefore cause folks to do things like “shoot 20 people.”

Wow. Really?

As I said in another post, I’m DEPRESSED not DANGEROUS.

There is a very definite difference.

Konnikova highlights the research of Jeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University. About 25 years ago, he analyzed 10, 000 individuals (both mentally ill and healthy) during the course of one year and found that in only 4 PERCENT of violence cases was attributed to serious mental illness. Alcohol or drug abuse and economic status were much larger risk factors. Twelve years later, he repeated his study, following 800 people in four states who were being treated for either psychosis or a major mood disorder. Thirteen percent of those people committed a violent act that year. But, as Konnikova explains, the other factors—namely, unemployment, economic status, drug and alcohol abuse–played a much bigger role. When you take away those factors, the risk for violence fell to a whopping 2 PERCENT. That is, THE SAME RISK AS FOUND IN THE GENERAL PUBLIC.

Swanson’s results are compatible with other studies that Konnikova cites. She writes:

subsequent study of over a thousand discharged psychiatric inpatients, known as the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, found that, a year after their release, patients were only more likely than the average person to be violent if they were also abusing alcohol or drugs. Absent substance abuse, they were no more likely to act violently than were a set of randomly selected neighbors. Two years ago, an analysis of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (which contained data on more than thirty-two thousand individuals) found that just under three per cent of people suffering from severe mental illness had acted violently in the last year, as compared to just under one per cent of the general population. Those who also abused alcohol or drugs were at an elevated, ten-percent risk.

Cole is a talented designer. I’ll give him that. But I think he could do more for those with mood disorders by showing them pretty pictures of boots and purses on his billboards than messages that suggest depressed people are to blame for the violence in this world.

We read that memo enough as it is.

Join, the new depression community.

Publishing originally on Sanity Break.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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1 Response
  1. Carol

    Yes. Agendas seem to rule the lives of some folks. I think that “detachment” from healthy relationships is more to blame. I don’t believe in being my brother’s keeper, but I do believe in keeping a watchful eye on the hurting hearts around me. May God help us all.