Study: People with mental illnesses rarely commit violent acts

People with mental illness rarely commit acts of violence, against others or themselves, but you wouldn't know that from what the media reports, according researchers at Johns Hopkins.
By Stephen Feller   |   June 7, 2016 at 4:35 PM
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BALTIMORE, June 7 (UPI) -- Despite media reference to people accused of committing violent crimes having mental illnesses, most people with the type of psychological conditions the reports mention are not generally violent, according to a recent study.

Researchers at John Hopkins University found in a review a large sample of two decades worth of media reports on mental health and mass shootings that the reports rarely talked about successful treatment of patients, in addition to linking mental health to violence far more often than appears to be necessary.

The negative stories have added to fears of people with mental illness and reinforce social fears about people who have depression, schizophrenia, anxiety or other conditions.

If more media reports included references to successful treatment of patients and depictions of patients were more realistic, the researchers suggest misperceptions about these patients may be reduced. They point out, however, that it's easy to classify a violent criminal, whether the crime was a mass murder or somebody beaten on a street corner, as mentally unstable because most people do not commit such acts.

"Anyone who kills people is not mentally healthy. We can all agree on that," Dr. Emma McGinty, an assistant professor of health policy and management, and mental health, at the Johns Hopkins University, said in a press release. "But it's not necessarily true that they have a diagnosable illness. They may have anger or emotional issues, which can be clinically separate from a diagnosis of mental illness. Violence may stem from alcohol or drug use, issues related to poverty or childhood abuse. But these elements are rarely discussed. And as a result, coverage is skewed toward assuming mental illness first."

For the study, published in the journal Health Affairs, researchers reviewed 400 randomly selected news articles about mental illness published between 1995 and 2014.

Overall, 55 percent articles linked violence to mental health conditions, with 38 percent referring to violence against other people and 29 percent mentioning suicide. Just under half the articles -- 47 percent -- mention treatment of mental health conditions, but only 14 percent describe treatment or recovery of patients.

The problem appeared to get worse during the course of the study period as 1 percent of articles in between 1994 and 2005 linked violence and mental illness, while 18 percent did so between 2005 and 2014.

In terms of mass shootings, the number of which appear to have increased based on news reports -- the FBI reports the overall number of such crimes has been steady in the last two decades -- the researchers found 9 percent of all the articles in the first decade linked such events to mental health issues. During the second decade of the study, that number more than doubled to 22 percent.

The researchers suggest media coverage is reinforcing fear of mental illness and people who have it, while also discouraging people who need treatment from getting it because of the social stigma connected to psychological treatment.

"Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others and most violence is not caused by mental illness, but you would never know that by looking at media coverage of incidents," McGinty said. "Despite all of the work that has been done to reduce stigma associated with mental health issues, this portrayal of mental illness as closely linked with violence exacerbates a false perception about people with these illnesses, many of whom live healthy, productive lives."

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