Mental Illness and Crime, Yet Again

By Neuroskeptic | December 29, 2012 10:32 am

As if on cue, a major study about the relationship (if any) between mental disorder and crime has appeared just when everyone’s talking about that.

Although having said that, people seem to be interested in that issue most of the time nowadays, in the UK at any rate, with schizophrenia topping the list of supposedly scary syndromes.

So – should we be worried?

The new research, from Australian team Morgan et al, surveyed everyone born in the state of Western Australia between 1955 and 1969. About 1.6 million people lived there over the course of the study so this was a big project.

By linking local records of arrests over the period 1985 to 1996 to the database of psychiatric diagnosis, the researchers were able to examine disorder-crime correlations in the entire population – meaning that there was no possibility of bias.

So what happened? Here’s some highlights:

  • 32% of psychiatric patients had been arrested at least once. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what the rate was in the general population, but that falls into the range of overall arrest rates in most countries.
  • 11% of those arrested had a psychiatric diagnosis. This rose to 20% of arrests for violent offences.
  • 0.8% of suspects had schizophrenia, rising to 1.7% for violent offences.
  • The number of arrests in people without a disorder fell over the period 1985-1996, reflecting the well-known fact that people commit fewer crimes as they get older. However, in psychiatric patients, there was no change over time.
  • For murder, 30% of suspects had a psychiatric history while 3% had a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
  • Both substance abuse and personality disorders were associated with higher arrest rates than schizophrenia, but schizophrenia in turn was higher than depression, anxiety, and other miscellaneous disorders.
  • Although only 1.7% of violent offenders had schizophrenia, those with the disorder were somewhat more likely to involve strangers, and to take place in public places, and less likely to target family and partners.

Overall this confirms that the great majority of crimes, including violent ones, are not committed by people with mental illness, and that your chance of getting ‘murdered by a lunatic’ is incredibly low. This strikes me as the only statistic that matters to most people.

There’s a long-standing debate over whether people with various disorders are more likely to commit crimes than they would be if they didn’t have one, the relative risk. While interesting, this is a purely academic question. What the rest of us need to know is the absolute risk, and this is low.

ResearchBlogging.orgMorgan VA, Morgan F, Valuri G, Ferrante A, Castle D, and Jablensky A (2012). A whole-of-population study of the prevalence and patterns of criminal offending in people with schizophrenia and other mental illness. Psychological medicine, 1-12 PMID: 23234722

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04927301561819474314 nerkul

    This is controversial because we want to take care of ill people but want to punish bad people. Any model that fails to see a person as fundamentally like every other person will always fall to this inconsistency. We just need to grow up, see all criminals and sick people as essentially ourselves, and take care of everyone.

  • http://petrossa.me/ petrossa.me

    That still leaves the question to which point anyone who willingly commits a heinous act is compos mentis.

    To me you must be mad to empty a gun in a school, but seemingly only a few who did so officially where.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Off-topic comments deleted.

  • Black book doc

    Without belonging to one of the most fundamentalist church of antipsychiatrist, I do not believe that receiving a psychiatric diagnosis is a sure proof of mental illness- and vice-versa.

    You write: “whether people with various disorders are more likely to commit crimes than they would be if they didn't have one, the relative risk. While interesting, this is a purely academic question”

    May I disagree thinking that the really practical interesting question is does a compulsory out patient treatment can prevent a mentally ill person with a history of violence to commit crimes and even murder?

    (NB: Prediction is difficult and medicine including psychiatry is not really scientific. (yet?)

    The UK and european Union think so since they made some outpatient treatment mandatory and not only to prevent suicicede or self-arm!

    So do some French judges:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/19/france-europe-news
    “Psychiatrist whose patient hacked man to death convicted of manslaughter
    French judges say Danielle Canarelli was 'blind' to risk posed to public by man who committed axe murder in the Alps(…)”

    Some matricides -not all of them- might be prevented if a mother victim of the violence of a mentally ill son in their home is offered the choice of her violent son living elsewhere…

    Some persons with Asperger's syndrome are now in prison in the UK or in forensic high security psychiatric facilities some for severe crimes -like planning a terrorist attacks- and it is believed that with the proper support those persons might not have had to suffer that growing and growing anger.

    The DSM5 will prevent the most able of Asperger's syndrome persons to receive special education when needed and proper support at the work place since as pr Fred Volkmar 's paper and other have shown that they will not qualify for an autistic label-although those already diagnosed will be able to keep the diagnosis!

    Stigmatization of the mentally ill is awful -especially since recreational drugs like alcohol and narco trafficking are responsable of so many murders and crimes and so many sufferers are never violent – still neglecting to prevent unhappiness and anger is no good.

  • Black book doc

    Happy New Year neuroskeptic!

    (On the whole I think of your blog posts what Gioachino Rossini thought of Wagner's music:

    “Wagner is a composer who has beautiful moments but awful quarter hours.”

    But life will be less exciting and rich without Wagner's music for many people)

  • Anonymous

    It is evident that the term schizophrenia is subjective and ultimately meaningless. As shown by the Anders Breikic case, psychiatrists cannot even agree on who to label as schizophrenic. Those people who commit 'insane' crimes are thus defined as having a 'disease'. As discussed in the previous mental illness thread the label is attached to an action which then becomes redefined as the cause of the action. A circular linguistic illogical tautology. Psychiatry is crazy eh?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03474899831557543486 George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

    Psychiatric diagnosis is proof of mental illness if that diagnosis is made by a psychiatrist. Most people don't seem to understand that psychiatric diagnoses are more than just some criteria – impairment is also required. As an actual psychiatrist and somebody who worked in an acute care setting for 23 years, I don't find the results of this study very surprising. In the US, the government and insurance companies have restricted treatment access based on the notion of “dangerousness”. It is difficult to get access to hospital care unless you meet the criteria of being a danger to yourself or a danger to others. We also have a very high rate of incarceration of the mentally ill (and others). Some county jails have become the largest mental institutions in the US. While many people here seem to bash psychiatrists as sport, business and government forces have been able to disproportionately decrease resources available to people who anyone would agree have significant problems. I would expect that treatment criteria in the UK are more humane and available and that is what makes this an interesting study. If you a severe mental illness in the US have no resources it is easy to get arrested and in some cases end up in a physical confrontation with the police.

  • Anonymous

    'Psychiatric diagnosis is proof of mental illness'

    So what do you make of the case of, say, Anders Breivik or the Unabomber? There is no scientific proof in psychiatry. None. Diagnosis is subjective. Kappa scores for the DSM5 field trials demonstrate this very fact.

  • Anonymous

    George Dawson states 'Psychiatric diagnosis is proof of mental illness'

    Ha! Yeh.. just tell the queers that. You have ideas above your station mate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15107067137612954306 GamesWithWords

    @Neuroskeptic: Whether mental illness — particularly untreated mental illness — makes someone more likely to commit crime doesn't seem an “academic question” to me, except in the sense that academics study the fundamental questions that are the basis of all others. You write that 30% of murderers have a psychiatric history, which seems pretty significant. But even if it was only 1.7%, would a 1.7% decrease in murders be so irrelevant that nobody — not even those 1% of people murdered and their family members — would care?

    I doubt there's any one-size-fits-all approach to solve crime. Every bit of it that we understand better is a bit that we can reduce.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03474899831557543486 George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

    “Ha! Yeh.. just tell the queers that. You have ideas above your station mate”

    Yeah right – I happen to be the only guy in the conversation who can actually help people with these problems. It is one thing to be in a reductionist or Szazian reverie about the heterogeniety of mental illness (pure genius by the way that psychiatrists have never really thought of) , but at the end of the day – you have absolutely nothing to offer people with severe problems. These psychiatry bashing theories don't really help when you are face to face with somebody who is actually going to kill somebody or kill themselves. Or somebody who has been brutalized by the police and can't figure out what happened.

    That is my station and unless you have been there – you have no standing.

  • Anonymous

    George Dawson says 'I happen to be the only guy in the conversation who can actually help people'

    You have extreme arrogance if nothing else.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11889790311533568611 Lady Demelza

    'Psychiatric diagnosis is proof of mental illness if that diagnosis is made by a psychiatrist.'

    'I happen to be the only guy in the conversation who can actually help people.'

    I was diagnosed with psychosis by a psychiatrist. It turned out I had temporal lobe epilepsy. I know of many other people with epilepsy who have had similar experiences, even in this day and age. I've never had a psychotic episode. Said psychiatrist told me that if I just stopped thinking about my epileptic symptoms, they would stop happening.

    I've also, many times, been in a situation where someone experiencing a mental illness was feeling compelled to harm themselves or others, and I've talked them out of it. Perhaps Dr. Dawson is suggested that I should have waited for a 'real psychiatrist' to turn up.

    People like George Dawson are exactly the reason for the phenomenon of 'psychiatrist-bashing.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01271590567394649679 Mental Illness Policy Org

    I don't know about this. The study makes no differentiation between treated and untreated. I don't know anyone who thinks when treated, people with sz are more prone to violence. It's like saying AIDs is not fatal. It's true if you get treatment, and not if you don't.
    DJ Jaffe
    Exec. Dir.
    Mental Illness Policy Org.
    http://mentalillnesspolicy.org

  • Anonymous

    “So what do you make of the case of, say, Anders Breivik or the Unabomber?”

    Such people are not insane. They are Dangerously Mistaken, which may be a good reason to lock somebody up.

    Don Cox

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    GamesWithWords: “Whether mental illness — particularly untreated mental illness — makes someone more likely to commit crime doesn't seem an “academic question” to me… You write that 30% of murderers have a psychiatric history, which seems pretty significant. But even if it was only 1.7%, would a 1.7% decrease in murders be so irrelevant that nobody — not even those 1% of people murdered and their family members — would care?”

    I see what you mean, but this assumes that we're able to prevent such crimes by better treatment, which is an open question (we already treat lots of people, and these crimes happen – so what should we do better?)

    So there's two questions 1) does mental illness cause crime 2) can we prevent these crimes better. The first one's academic unless the answer to the second one's 'yes' and I'm not sure it is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04103502029181168438 E

    Statistics relating to mental illness need to be treated with extreme caution because of the poor reliability associated with most psychiatric diagnoses. It therefore follows that few valid conclusion can be made regarding a link between mental illness and crime or any other complex issue with multiple causative factors.

    That said there appears to be clear anecdotal evidence at least of a link between some forms of violent crime and some mental illnesses. I am particularly struck by the conclusion that although only 1.7% of violent offenders had schizophrenia, those with the disorder were somewhat more likely to involve strangers, and to take place in public places. That finding alone seems significant to me.

    Findings like these make uncomfortable reading because they appear to be demonising a marginalised sector of society. But rather than dismissing the findings a mature response would be to look for the underlying reasons WHY some people with some forms of mental illness appear to be more likely to commit some crimes and then look for strategies to keep them (and us) safe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15107067137612954306 GamesWithWords

    @Neurskeptic. More abstractly, the question is whether by understanding crime better we can better prevent it. Successful treatment is one option; prevent access to weaponry is another. In any case, I doubt that understanding crime *less* well will help us prevent it.

    There's also a question of timescale. You might say that Watson & Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA was “purely academic” because at the time, we couldn't do anything with that knowledge. True. But the only reason we can do anything with that knowledge now — and we can do a lot! — is that it was discovered then.

    You can't do RND without basic research, because with the basic research, you have nothing to guide the RND.

  • Anonymous

    E says 'a mature response would be to look for the underlying reasons WHY some people with some forms of mental illness appear to be more likely to commit some crimes and then look for strategies to keep them (and us) safe.'

    Circular argument. When those that are more likely to commit crimes are defined as having a mental 'illness' you can totally ignore any of the social aspects of crime and just blame disease! (apart from the bankers and CEOs of course). What rubbish!

  • Anonymous

    George Dawson says ' Most people don't seem to understand that psychiatric diagnoses are more than just some criteria – impairment is also required.'

    Impairment defined by whom? Aspirational arrogant middle class doctors.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14543449846821330546 Manchester Psychiatry Society

    Nice study. I blogged about this a while back with regards to schizophrenia and homicide. Although the stats were only rough it serves the purpose of showing the vast majority of mentally ill are not violent despite the press. Interestingly the percentage of the uk schizophrenia population who commit homicide is about the same as the percentage of the GENERAL population in the USA and slightly less than that of the general population of Russia.

    http://mancpsychsoc.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/stigma-of-mental-illness-myth-of_17.html?m=0

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04103502029181168438 E

    Anonymous @19:37 says

    “When those that are more likely to commit crimes are defined as having a mental 'illness”

    False premise. No one is “defining” crime in terms of mental illness or to put it another way crime is not a diagnostic criteria for any mental illness that I know of.

    99% of those with a mental illness that then go onto commit any sort of crime were diagnosed long before breaking the law. So either the two issues are coincidental, (people with mental health difficulties also occasionally go onto commit crime) or causal, (the voices made me do it).

    Either way we don't need a conspiracy theory involving a cabal of malicious mental health professionals diagnosing people after the fact to hang this or that awful crime round their necks. We can leave that sort of nonsense to tabloid journalists and you.

  • Anonymous

    E says 'we don't need a conspiracy theory involving a cabal of malicious mental health professionals diagnosing people after the fact to hang this or that awful crime round their necks. We can leave that sort of nonsense to tabloid journalists and you.'

    And psychiatrists who stand up in court to offer just that. I do not understand why you compare my statements to the tabloid press when I am saying the exact opposite.

  • Anonymous

    Multiple shooters in recent extraordinary rampages or targeted assaults had diagnoses of ASD, Asperger's disorder or autism:

    -The Port Arthur shooter in who is still alive in jail has been diagnosed with autism and mental retardation.

    -The Virginia Tech shooter was clearly autistic with elective mutism as a child, humorlessness and poor relationships.

    -The Colorado movie theater shooter also had signs and symptoms of classic Asperger's disorder.

    -The Norway shooter has received one diagnosis of Asperger's and narcissistic personality disorder: http://zeenews.india.com/news/world/norway-mass-killer-suffers-from-aspergers_780786.html. He was relentless in his targeting of young people. Other criminologists in Norway agree & list Asperger's disorder in criminal cases: http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.dagbladet.no%2F2012%2F01%2F25%2Fnyheter%2Finnenriks%2Fterror%2F19925148%2F

    -The Sandy Hook shooter had obviously been seriously impaired from Asperger's disorder since he was young and was not going to be able to negotiate the demands of the adult world.

    -John Odgren, afflicted with Asperger's disorder, killed a classmate at school after targeting him for days. http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/news/x359581057/John-Odgren-sentenced-to-life-in-prison-no-parole

    -Multiple people have been relentlessly targeted by a dangerous psychiatrist with Asperger's disorder and malignant narcissism, Paul S. Appelbaum. Victims include disabled psychiatric patients, one of whom was killed in an unethical research study, and other patients, many of whom were sexually assaulted by their doctors. Multiple weapons on hospital grounds, even after a completed shooting, were intentionally ignored. Seven people were nearly killed in a fire; concerns for their safety were ridiculed. The incompetent, unethical and dangerous Appelbaum is presenting himself as an “expert” on competency, ethics and dangerousness, including weapons in schools and shootings by people with Aspergers' disorder.

  • Anonymous

    lock them all up and throw away the key. Give them ect AND LOBOTOMIES. Even more…

  • Anonymous

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0050698

    Now we can identify them we can lock them up before they do harm. Simple neuroscience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07628837730792349319 Daniel Kroner

    We are at an interesting time in modern psychiatry. We are on the cusp of a real transition towards more biological basis of diagnosis but we are just not knowledgeable enough yet to really abandon the old ways. A big part of the problem is getting insurance coverage on things now requires DSM diagnosis so we are often erring on the side of caution using overly broad terminology because the decision has been made that over coverage is better than under coverage.

    I wrote a paper on this in grad school which can be found here: http://bit.ly/ZEzz5y

  • Black Book doc

    And delusional hate against a person -who might have his faults I do not know him but cannot have murdered people with guns on hospital grounds with everybody being his accomplices- made an anonymous spell venin on Asperger people who need the proper support and protection from bullying and hate for their differences.

    I do believe that proper support can prevent blood crimes from the minority of Asperger persons with a growing anger building up for years and years of bullying at school and at the work place.

    For crimes like internet hacking ot whatever it is more difficult since we live in corrupt societies and asperger 's people see NT 's cheating all the times- starting with their bullies at school and on the work place who never get caught for harrassing them for not being social or not having sexual or sentimental relationships in some cases-you name it.

  • Anonymous

    Most murders are related to drugs. How would the numbers turn out if drugs are not involved? How great would the chance be of an honest citizen to be killed by a sick person?

  • Black Book doc

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/16/widow-sues-psychiatrist-i_0_n_2486787.html

    Chantel Blunk, Aurora Victim's Widow, Sues James Holmes' Psychiatrist Over Theater Shootings

    May be Dr George Dawson and poor I have a point. Haven't we?

    At least the plaintiff 's lawyer thinks so!

    Looking at the story it would be a shame for the USA if mental illness is not considered seriously before punishment is even considered.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that the psychiatrist is guilty of anything.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »