The Connection Between Mental Illness and Violence Just Can’t Be Made (There is a widespread misperception that those with a mental illness are dangerous)

(Dixon, IL) May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Declared by Mental Health in America in 1949; Mental Health Month is a time to increase awareness of mental health issues and try to chip away at the stubborn stigma that persists around those with a mental Illness.

“Recent events greatly illustrate the need to increase awareness and reduce stigma,” says Larry Prindaville, Sinnissippi Centers’ Vice President/Chief Administrative Officer. “For example, during the national news coverage of violent tragedies like Sandy Hook and Aurora Colorado the first questions that reporters asked were if a mental illness was involved. This gives the false perception that violence is caused by mental illness. However these rushes to judgment are not at all supported by the facts,” adds Prindaville

Here are the facts about mental illness and violence:

  • The vast majority of person with a mental illness are not violent. The percentage of individuals in society who commit violent acts (and who are not mentally ill) is about 3%. The number of individuals in society who have a mental illness and commit violent acts is about 3%. Mental illness is not a causal factor in violence
  • The national media (newspapers, television, film, music, novels, cartoons, etc.) for a very long time have been the main contributors to the false perception that violence is caused by mental illness and that the mentally ill are largely violent or dangerous.
  • The most concerning statistic is that individuals with a mental illness are up to four time more likely to be the victims of crime, including violent crime, than those without a mental illness.

Another fact about mental illness: In any given year 1 in 4 individuals, 25%, have a diagnosable, mental health disorder of some kind. “One of the main causes of why many do not seek the treatment they need is the misperception and stigma still being perpetuated in society that result in false information, a lack of acceptance and a lack of understanding about persons with a mental illness.”

“This is not to say that the recent calls for more support for mental health services should not be heeded,” says Prindaville. “Historically mental health treatment and support has been woefully underfunded at the state and federal levels.”

“However, such support won’t be the solution to reducing violence,” adds Prindaville, “it’s the wrong direction to take the conversation in.” One of the main factors that does contribute to violent behavior is a history of violence: That history of violence can mean the individual has already exhibited violent tendencies or behaviors in the past, has observed violence, especially on a repeated basis, or has been the victim of violence.

Other factors that contribute to violence; substance abuse or dependence, homelessness, lack of social support, poverty, inadequate housing, juvenile detention, divorce, or a loss of employment.

“Finally, there’s a fundamental unfairness in how we perceive those with a mental illness,” says Prindaville. “If a celebrity reveals they are struggling with a mental illness, there seems to be a unanimous outpouring of support: Which IS the appropriate reponse. Otherwise, society tends to avoid any other individuals with a mental illness viewing them as dangerous or potentially violent.”

There’s even a different standard woven into the very fabric of our language when it comes to mental illness compared to physical illnesses (and by the way, the brain is an organ of the body so mental illness IS a physical ailment too). “We would never say my friend Ted is a heart disease: It makes absolutely no sense. However we often say Ted is Bipolar or Ted is Schizophrenic.” Individuals with a mental illness are no more defined by their diseases than individuals who have cancer or diabetes, however our language has not caught up with that fact.

“Finally, remember that individuals living with a mental illness are no different than anyone else living with any other disease or any other challenge in life. They are our co-workers, our family members, and our friends. They face their challenges daily and overcome them, but they are not defined by them.”

If you suspect that you or someone you love has a mental illness, know that treatment works and recovery is possible. Caring professionals are waiting to help. One place to start is at www.sinnissippi.com and click on “Resources” where you will find a wealth of links. You can also call Sinnissippi Centers at 800-252-7642.

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