The Media Versus the Mentally Ill

The media's focus on the role of mental illness in mass murders contributes to a global stigma against sufferers, increasing their distress and preventing them from participating fully in society. But the belief that people with mental illness are more prone to violence is at odds with the facts.

MELBOURNE – James Holmes, accused of opening fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, last summer, had no criminal history, but was seeing a psychiatrist prior to the incident. Adam Lanza, suspected of murdering his mother and gunning down 20 children and six adult staff members at a Connecticut elementary school before taking his own life, had never been in legal trouble, but had been diagnosed with a “personality disorder,” as well as the developmental disorder Asperger syndrome. Anders Behring Breivik in Norway, Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona, Seung-Hui Cho in Virginia – the list of mass murderers defined according to their mental illnesses goes on.

The fact is that deciding to murder, at random, a large number of innocent people reflects deeply disturbed thinking, which might reflect a mental illness. But, contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that people with mental illnesses are likely to be dangerous or violent. The belief that they are – and the reporting that feeds it – is reinforcing widespread stigmatization of those with mental illness, increasing their suffering and preventing them from participating fully in society.

Public perceptions of the risk of violence associated with mental illness are at odds with the facts. In the United States, for example, roughly 42% of adults believe that a depressed child is likely to be dangerous. And 70% of Americans believe that patients hospitalized for a mental illness may be dangerous. But, according to the American Psychiatric Association, people with mental disorders, who account for roughly one-quarter of the population in a given year, commit only 4-5% of violent crimes. Indeed, while mentally ill people may be more likely to commit violent acts if they are not treated, or are misusing alcohol or drugs, the risk is small.

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