Mentally Ill Patients More Likely to Suffer Violent Crime Than to Commit It
> 2/12/2008 9:23:14 AM

There's no doubt that unfortunate cases of mentally unstable individuals driven to harm others do exist. And they generally garner a great amount of attention and subsequent scrutiny by a sensationalist press. But focusing on the stereotypes presented by such cases - that individuals suffering from some form of serious mental illness present a danger to all those around them - is not in any way productive, as those beliefs are false. New research reveals that patients treated for mental illness are far more likely to fall victim to violent crime (defined as threatening, fighting or otherwise hurting another) than to perpetrate it themselves.

This is not to say that certain conditions do not correspond with a greater propensity toward violence. Patients suffering from bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or schizophrenia are 2 to 3 times as likely to engage in violent or assaultive acts during their lifetimes (16% of those with such conditions perpetrate some such offense, as opposed to 7% of the unaffected population). Predicting the behavior of individuals affected by severe psychoses or mood disorders often proves extremely difficult; legal safeguards, continually updated risk assessment resources and a sense of cautious compassion are necessary. Patients suffering from severe psychoses may, very appropriately, be labeled dangerous to themselves and others at times, but assuming this condition to be the standard is a serious mistake.

In the most recent survey on this contentious topic, researchers reviewed 31 studies relating to mental illness and violence that had been completed over the past 17 years. Their most significant finding: the rates of patients who'd been the victims of violent crime was exponentially higher than that of patients who'd committed the same. The studies focused on outpatient data, and results varied depending on the relative durations of the studies in question, but the numbers were overwhelming: between 2% and 13% of the patients surveyed reported committing some form of violence, while an astounding 20-34% suffered from at least one such attack. Other studies have found that mentally ill individuals are 6 to 7 times as likely to be murdered as those in the general population. Why are these statistics so striking? The most obvious explanation is that criminals, of course, prey on those who they deem to be least threatening - and many patients with severe mental illnesses behave in ways that make their vulnerabilities somewhat clear. They also often reside in low-income or government-funded housing, and their neighborhoods leave them more vulnerable to drug addicts, dealers, and other low-level criminals.

The central fact remains: after controlling for elements like age, income, employment, and substance abuse, researchers found that individuals with mental illnesses who have been treated and released from psychiatric facilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than those among the general population. Drug abuse, often comorbid with severe mental illness, can change the equation, but should not be allowed to muddy the larger issue. These findings will be most productive when used to reinforce one obvious fact: the most important element of successful prevention is treatment. Conditions serious enough to prompt dangerously impulsive behavior must be addressed in a professional setting and treated with some combination of therapy and medication. The only way to ensure that those suffering from severe mental illness do not pose a threat to themselves or the community at large is to grant them the attention and the treatment they need. Villifying them does no good, and releasing them without successfully treating their disorders leaves them more vulnerable to the violent impulses of others.

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