Challenging longstanding stereotypes that associate mental illness with violent behavior, a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley suggests delusions and hallucinations associated with mental illness rarely lead to acts of violence. The results of this study were recently reported in the online edition of journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Mass shootings at the hands of lone gunmen — including the recent killings in Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut and Santa Barbara, California — have all sparked the media’s attention, stirring debate over severe mental illnesses triggering extreme acts of violence. This study analyzed the occurrence of psychosis-induced violence among people who suffer from mental illnesses.
Jennifer Skeem, the associate dean of research at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare and lead author of the study, stated, “High-profile mass shootings capture public attention and increase vigilance of people with mental illness. But our findings clearly show that psychosis rarely leads directly to violence.” Skeem, along with fellow researchers at Columbia University and the University of Virginia, focused on patients who displayed the most violent tendencies in the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, a 1998 analysis studying over 1,100 violent offenders who had been discharged from mental health care facilities.
The researchers looked at a subgroup of 100 patients who were characterized as high-risk and were involved in two or more violent acts in the year following psychiatric facility discharge. Skeem stated, “We wanted to examine the small group of people with repeated violence and see how consistently these violent incidents were caused by hallucinations and delusions.” The researchers also interviewed former patients about the thoughts and feelings that preceded their acts of violence and even consulted the subjects’ family and friends to gain more insight. The results of the study revealed that only 12 percent of the violent acts that these subjects committed after their release were foreshadowed by psychosis.
While mass shootings only account for a small portion of gun-related deaths in the United States, the severity and nature of such acts of violence have a profound effect on public policy. For example, after the 2013 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the state of New York passed the secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, which requires professionals in the mental health field to report patients who could be harmful. These people’s names are then inputted into a gun permit database that forbids them from purchasing a firearm. The shooting in Isla Vista, California also preceded an amendment by the House of Representatives that boosts funding for adding more mental health records to the country’s background check system for screening individuals prior to purchasing firearms.
These extreme cases put a spotlight on mental illnesses as a source of fear or danger. This same stigma is what keeps many people who suffer from mental health conditions from seeking help. Studies in the past, have in fact, shown that patients who suffer from psychiatric disorders are more likely to be victims of violent crimes.
Another recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that fewer than five percent of the 120,000 cases of gun-related killings in the U.S. between the years of 2001 and 2010 were committed by people who were diagnosed as having a mental illness.
Skeem has commented that her team’s study should not deflect attention from the fact that mentally ill patients need access to mental health treatment: “It’s important to remember that risk factors for violence — such as substance abuse, childhood maltreatment, neighborhood disadvantage — are mostly shared by people with and without mental illness, and that’s what we should be focused on if maximizing public safety is our goal.”
Mental illnesses currently affect millions of Americans every day and many don’t receive the treatment that they need. Sovereign Health Group is among the leading mental health treatment providers in the country. We provide inpatient and outpatient treatment options for patients suffering from mental health disorders, drug addiction and dual diagnosis conditions. If you know someone who is dealing from a mental health condition and is in need of treatment, please do not hesitate to call. You may reach us at 888-530-4614. Our admissions helpline is open 24/7 and one of our treatment specialists will assist you in finding the right treatment option for you.
Written by Benjamin Creekmore, Sovereign Health Group writer