The evidence being gathered and reported about Jared L. Loughner, the alleged gunman in Saturday’s tragic event in Tucson, Ariz., strongly suggests that the man has a severe mental illness.
Sadly, that fact will just compound the tragedy, for it reinforces the public’s mistaken belief that violence is a common symptom of mental illness — a belief that only deepens the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness, making it more difficult for people with such illnesses to find the care they need.
This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don’t expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.
Seena Fazel is an Oxford University psychiatrist who has led the most extensive scientific studies to date of the links between violence and two of the most serious psychiatric diagnoses — schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, either of which can lead to delusions, hallucinations, or some other loss of contact with reality. Rather than looking at individual cases, or even single studies, Fazel’s team analyzed all the scientific findings they could find. As a result, they can say with confidence that psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone’s propensity or motive for violence.
A 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. Two similar analyses on bipolar patients showed, along similar lines, that the risk of violent crime is fractionally increased by the illness, while it goes up substantially among those who are dependent on intoxicating substances. In other words, it’s likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness. …
Your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent study of four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million. To put it in perspective, statistics show you are about three times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike.
The effects of stigma and discrimination on people with mental illnesses are profound. A 2003 governmental report, “The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health,” found that, “[s]tigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders — especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment, which only deepens the stigma and discrimination.”
You can read Bell’s full article here.