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The myths that surround mental illnesses and violence

Statistics show that linking crimes to mental health issues is inaccurate more often than not

By Emily Bulthuis, MSW, LICSW
November 17, 2017

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As we watch the news, it seems like there is more tragedy than ever. And sadly, a lot of it involves people committing unthinkable acts.

When these horrific events happen, the nonstop news coverage inevitably begins to dive deeper into the life of the culprit. And more often than not, mental illnesses are brought up as part of the reason that person may have committed the crime.

Mental illnesses become the easy thing to link to as we try to help explain something that is so difficult to understand. But I want to warn you that it’s a risky assumption. Statements like these fuel the belief that everyone with a mental illness is possibly dangerous. But that is far from the truth.

Are people with mental illnesses more likely to commit a crime?

Not at all. If anything, people with mental illnesses are actually 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime. Recent news stories of mass shootings have often portrayed the shooter as having a mental health issue. But a recent study found that less than 5 percent of all homicides are committed by someone with a mental illness. So it’s clear there are many other factors playing into someone’s likelihood of using a weapon in a violent manner.

What are other factors of why someone might commit a crime?

This can vary. Level of education is considered a risk factor for criminal activity. So is socioeconomic status. A study found that 20 percent of children from low-income homes are charged with crimes by the time they turn 24. For children from middle-income homes, the rate is 16 percent. And it’s 12 percent for kids from high-income homes. More research has found that 68 percent of prison inmates did not graduate from high school.

The media tends to target mental health issues as a major supplier to crime – even though the statistics show that’s not accurate. What are the negative consequences of this?

Following a mass shooting or a high-profile crime, it’s normal to want to attach blame. It’s a way of trying to cope with and better understand what has taken place. But wrongly linking violent acts as a trait of mental illnesses creates even more stigma about mental health issues.

Stigma about mental illnesses is a huge barrier to someone seeking treatment. If we want to have healthy communities and families, we need to make sure we are educated about mental illnesses and not wrongly continuing stigma.

Mental health challenges can be scary and confusing. But it’s important to remember that these issues are common and treatable.

Make It OK works to end the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses so people seek help. Conversations about mental health can be hard – whether you have a mental illness or you know someone who does. Learn what to say and what not to say. Then, take the pledge to end the stigma. Together, we can make it OK.

About Emily Bulthuis, MSW, LICSW

Emily Bulthuis is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who provides individual therapy to adults. She works in Park Nicollet’s Behavioral Health department. Emily earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of St. Thomas. Emily enjoys partnering with her patients to support them in improving their quality of life and emotional well-being. Her specialties include co-occurring mental and chemical health disorders. She also works with family members of those struggling with mental health matters. In her free time, Emily enjoys listening to podcasts, cycling and spending time with her family and black lab, Lucky.

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