Fri | Dec 2, 2016

Mentally ill people are not violent

Published:Wednesday | March 3, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Clayton Sewell, Contributor

It's a commonly held belief that people with mental illness are more violent than 'normal people'. Many of us are, in fact, concerned about possible public-safety risks posed by these members of our society. The true relationship between mental illness and violence here needs to be clarified, but the international evidence suggests that the violent incidents that can be blamed on people with a mental illness, such as schizophrenia, are very small.

The public has grown accustomed to seeing violence among the mentally ill through movie depictions of 'crazed' killers and the headline-grabbing, but relatively infrequent, real-life episodes reported in the media. As humans, we tend to fear the violence that is random, senseless and unpredictable, and frequently associate this with mental illness. We are less startled to know that someone was stabbed to death in a robbery than to hear that someone was stabbed to death by a psychotic man or woman.

Stigma and discrimination

This public perception of a greatly increased link between mental illness and violence is central to the continued stigmatisation and discrimination of mentally ill people. This causes our society to condone the use of force, legal or otherwise, when violence is a issue. This presumption that people with mental illness are violent is also used as justification to assault, and otherwise victimise them.

The reality is that, in Jamaica, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violent acts than perpetrators of such acts. US research indicates that people with mental illness are almost three times as likely to be victims of a criminal act than the general population. It has also been found that people with mental illness are responsible for three per cent of the crimes committed in the United Sates, including murders. In a number of cases, the violent acts by them are due to provocation by the members of the general population.

Crime and violence committed by people with mental illness are usually associated with the same factors as found in greater societal violence. These factors include being a young, adult male. This is apparent when one looks at the gender and age of the average person incarcerated in our prisons. Poverty is also another major contributing factor to general violence. Jamaica also has significant ganja, and increasing crack/cocaine use, which contributes significantly to the crime rate.

The community mental-health service in Jamaica has a network of clinics that offer treatment for a variety of mental disorders. The majority of people with mental disorders are functional when compliant with treatment. In fact, we rub shoulders and interact with many of them every day without any negative consequences.

Dr Clayton Sewell is a consultant forensic psychiatrist; email: yourhealth@gleanerjm.com.

' In Jamaica, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent acts than perpetrators of such acts.'