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Is there any link between mental illness and violent crime?

Laura Swash

28th June 2016

Yes – people with mental health problems are more likely to be the victims of violence that those who have not been diagnosed with such problems. Not the connection you expected? This is because whenever violent crimes are committed, one thing that happens with depressing inevitability is the accusation in the media that the perpetrator was mentally ill.

In fairness, you can see where this comes from: a savage machete attack, say, or a seemingly random burst of deadly gunfire on a city street are clearly not the behaviour of someone who is thinking “normally”. But a recent article in the Guardian newspaper points out that numerous studies have shown that this is a simplistic assumption rather than evidentially based. Those with mental health problems are much more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence.

In this thought-provoking article, Dean Burnett points out that our tendency to blame these acts on mental health problems is a form of attribution bias (specifically the fundamental attribution error) whereby we try to distance ourselves from the possibility that we could ever do anything so awful, and so have to blame the supposed mental illness of the perpetrator, which definitely makes them “not like us”. So think again before declaring of the latest crime that the offender must have been “insane”.

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Laura Swash

Laura has been teaching Psychology in the face-to-face classroom and online for many years and she enjoys writing online academic material and blogs.

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