Does Mental Illness Lead to Violence?5 min read

I read a news story today about the mass killings in Las Vegas. The report said the killer had no known political or religious affiliation, and there was “no history of a psychological diagnosis.”

On the one hand, I can appreciate why such a point be made. There have been many high-profile cases of violent events involving persons with mental illness who were not under proper treatment. I know first hand how psychotic episodes can escalate to aggressive behavior. This is one crucial factor contributing to the need for better mental health care.

On the other hand, reporting on a condition that has not been confirmed is a misleading, irresponsible practice that perpetuates social stigma toward those who do have a diagnosis. Can you imagine an article that read, “the killer is not known to have diabetes,” or “leukemia,” or “herpes.” Mental illness is a medical condition, not a crime. It is true that some persons with mental illness commit acts of violence, but no more so than the rest of the population.

Julie Beck, reporting for The Atlantic (“Untangling Gun Violence from Mental Illness”), writes:

“The overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, just like the overwhelming majority of all people are not violent. Only 4 percent of the violence—not just gun violence, but any kind—in the United States is attributable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression (the three most-cited mental illnesses in conjunction with violence). In other words, 96 percent of the violence in America has nothing to do with mental illness.”

It’s true some persons with mental illness become violent. And it can be an outgrowth of their distorted thinking. Paranoid delusions can take over a person’s mind in such a way that others are perceived as a threat that must be stopped, by any means. Given that a person in a psychotic state has chemicals raging through his/her body making him/her extremely strong, this can be a volatile situation.

But this isn’t the whole story. A person having a distressing delusion can be dangerous to others. But often s/he does not cross the line, until…

I was living in a small attic apartment in Rochester, New York. I was feverishly working on a detailed outline of the Biblical letter to the Romans, on page 12, eager to finish it before my Bible study three hours later. I had only slept 2 hours over the last 36 and I had traveled over 500 miles. My mind was racing. My speech was hurried.

Then, my sister called. She could tell something was wrong. She told me to call my psychiatrist right away. I did and he advised me on a medication strategy we had set in place in the event of an episode such as I was having. It didn’t work. I did everything thing on my “Psychological Def-Con” list to calm down. Take a shower. Listen to soothing praise music. Read the Psalms. Breathe deeply. Nothing worked. I was frantic.

I had been told by my therapist of a “warm line” where they talked people through mental health crises short of suicidal thoughts. I called the number and talked to a young woman who had a calming voice yet the calmer she sounded, the more exasperated I became. She coached me to call 911 and connected me with the line herself.

This is when things got surreal. I told the 911 operator I was not suicidal, that I just needed to be psychologically assessed. She asks for my address. I gave it to her and told her I would wait outside my apartment, as I have no direct access. I sat outside and waited for what I thought would be a mobile medical unit to assess whether I need to go to the hospital.

Instead, I look up and see three police cars. Five policemen get out, their right hands touching their pistols. One starts shouting commands at me I can’t understand, I am so frightened. I begin to shake, pace, talk to myself. One officer puts his face in mine while two others hold my hands behind my back. My mind goes blank, except to notice that my neighbors are out on their porches, taking in the scene.

Finally, the ambulance arrived. The police turned me over to them. The attendant took my blood pressure and it was 200/100. But that was a small price to pay, an insignificant consequence of the event. It could have been much worse.

I have been told by many within the mental health care field that my perception was likely skewed, that the police have to take precautions to protect the public and their own lives, that they know better than the rest of us how to contain a potentially volatile situation.

But I have my doubts. I think our current societal myths about mental illness and aggression contributes to how poorly we respond to a crisis. Worse than this, it can actually aggravate a tense encounter to a violent episode.


About the Author:

I am a man with an unquiet mind who delights in the One who delights in me.
  • As we’ve seen in the news in recent years, sending the police to death with a person in crisis is often a terrible idea. We’ve seen a therapist shot because a police officer panicked. We’ve seen autistic kids shot because their hand gestures were scary.

    I’m sure that the operator meant well, but sending people with guns to “protect themselves and the public” from a person who isn’t violent or dangerous isn’t as good an idea as we might wish. A friend of mine who used to work as an aide to people with developmental disabilities said that you should never call the police for such a person unless you want them shot.

    Anyway, … There are a couple of issues going on, here. The police response to mental illness (and a lot of other things) is rooted in a far-too-quick reflex to shoot.

    Our societal response to mental illness is horrific. According to Hollywood, mental illness is either a cute quirk (“Monk” comes to mind, and numerous examples of moping, weird, etc. characters) or phenomenally dangerous (“Psycho,” “American “Psycho,” etc.). It’s okay to make jokes about “forgetting your meds” or the like whenever someone acts in an undesirable fashion.

    People know some of the terms, but we know very little about mental health, really. Especially since we’re a convenient political target. We’re thrown under the bus by the gun lobby, which is selling hard the narrative that our country doesn’t have too many guns, we just have untreated mental health problems. (Not that the people in the gun lobby’s pocket want to help expand mental health coverage, of course.) But that might be a can of worms you don’t want to open, here. Still, I think it’s relevant. We’re specifically in the sights — so to speak — of an interest group that wants to avoid scrutiny.

    • Tony Roberts

      Ken, you clearly a passionate edge to your compassion. As someone who has a mental illness and often needs advocacy, I’m glad you are on my side.