Mental Health and Violence

Today again the headlines are full of mourning for the victims of another school shooting in the USA. Questions are being asked about how to stop such horrors. From across the ocean in the UK, where guns are strictly regulated and not widely available – the US obsession with firearms despite the terrible price, is quite baffling to many.

Whenever there is a mass shooting, there is a holding of breath, and some people argue the way the media will respond is predicated on the colour of the perpetrator skin. If the shooter has an Islamic name, darker skin, the response will be one way, calls for tighter immigration rules and Islamophobic rhetoric perhaps. If white, the response will suddenly be to shouting about mental health, and lone wolves. People use these tragedies for their own agendas.

But the issue of Mental Health and violence is an important one to think about. There are, sadly, a great many people out there who think that people with mental health issues are dangerous. More likely to be violent, commit murder even. Given the way mental health is often handled in the media, in TV programmes, in Film, it’s hardly surprising. Psychosis, Schizophrenia, have been used as a lazy shorthand in horror movies for decades. And for some people, when they hear the words “mental health” – their minds instantly jump to the most severe diagnoses. Of which they have little understanding.

What is the truth? What is the relation between mental health and risk of committing a violent act? This report goes some way to exploring the issues in the UK – the US of course has its own landscape made of a different healthcare system and readily available guns…

It’s a complicated issue. Because people with mental health issues are people. And people are complicated. Do people without mental health issues commit violent acts? Murder? It’s an interesting question as to whether it can ever be “sane” to punch someone in the face, to stab someone, to shoot someone – whatever the motivation. As a non-violent person myself, who rarely even gets angry – it seems alien.

Is it ever sane or rational to put on a suicide vest and blow yourself up, taking others with you (willingly, I mean – I can understand how the vulnerable may find themselves coerced through threat and/or promises of reward for their families). Or to do the coercing, the radicalising, the recruiting? Is that sanity? We have a spectrum in society of what we say is acceptable, or tolerable in our society. There are many ways in which things like aggression, or sexualised behaviour can spill over in ways we deem unacceptable – as is being evidenced by the wave of sexual harassment – abuse scandals. Some people think it’s ok to get into fights. Ok to kill for this cause, not for that. Where is the line that we say certain behaviour is alright and a step beyond is a sign of mental illness?

The vast majority of people with mental health issues, even severe diagnoses, are never a risk to other people. If anything – people are more likely to hurt themselves, and sadly also at great risk of being victims of violence from others.

That is not to say it never happens. People with mental health issues do sometimes get involved in violence, or kill people, In cases like the shootings in America – people may leap on a history of one thing or another. The perpetrator of the most recent shooting was described as “depressed and a little quirky”. Is that why he did it? Depression doesn’t make a person violent. It’s not surprising that he was depressed given his situation – having lost his adoptive parents relatively recently.

Do we ask other questions about people like this? What has their life been like? What influences are around them, what media have they been consuming to shape their attitudes and behaviours? What pushes them from angry young man to murder, or bomber, or terrorist? Have these influencing factors led to the development of violent thoughts, as well as increasing the risk of concurrent mental health issues. i.e. the former are not caused by the latter, rather both are caused by the same set of precursor circumstances.

Without serious study and analysis, it’s hard to say – and sadly a lot of people are only interested in punishing or even killing criminals and terrorists, not seeking to understand why they become the way they are (in order to prevent others repeating this path).

There are some conditions, which can be related with risk, with anger management, with erratic behaviour and potential delusions, but in all cases, it is never true to say that x diagnosis = violent. People with mental ill health are no more violent than people with supposedly good mental health. Sometimes people do horrible things.

What is certain, is that accessing mental health services at the earliest possible stages, reduces the risk of a problem getting worse, and helps people to recover positive wellbeing, improve strategies for coping with difficult situations, and be able to engage in life and do the things they want to do, and be healthier and happier.

People who are happy with their lives and have the opportunities to do what they want to do in life, free from socioeconomic inequalities are less likely to carry out violent crime. This is one of many reasons we need to increase the availability of these services, make it easier to access them – and a huge part of that is working to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health that makes people not want to access them. The kind of stigma that comes from leaping on the mental health diagnosis of people who do bad things, whether or not there is any concrete evidence that there is any reason to do so.

We need people to recognise when they need help, or when their family members or friends are struggling, and be prepared to support them and love them, rather than ridicule or shame, leading to isolation and worsening of the problem.



Leave a Reply