Latimer: Violence and the mentally ill

Public perception of mental illness often includes an assumption that individuals with psychiatric disorders are likely to be violent and dangerous.

In particular, when many people hear about schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, they believe violence is a probable symptom associated with these serious mental illnesses.

Unfortunately, this assumption is the result of misinformation and excessive media coverage of violent crimes. In reality, very few people with mental illness—even untreated illness—will ever be violent.

A recent study in the Annals of Epidemiology looks at mental illness, gun violence and suicide and discusses evidence-based policy changes that may lead to a reduction in both gun violence and suicide.

The majority of people believe violence is largely the result of untreated mental illness. However, as noted by this study’s author, even if schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression were all cured, the rate of violence in the US would only diminish by approximately four per cent.

When we factor suicide into the statistics for gun violence, mental illness is of course responsible for a much larger portion of the blame. In the US, 61 per cent of all gun fatalities are the result of suicide and the vast majority of suicide is the result of mental illness.

Substance abuse is a strong risk factor for both violence and suicide and access to a gun is also considered an independent risk factor for suicide.

Our policies dealing with mental illness and violence, both here in Canada and elsewhere, should focus on evidence rather than fear. We must deal with preventing the social and behavioural causes of violence. This means addressing substance abuse, reducing access to weapons such as firearms and working on suicide prevention.

We also need to work to change public perception of mental illness. Not only do stigma and misinformation lead to people being fearful of those with psychiatric conditions, but they also lead to individuals being hesitant to seek help when it is needed.

Mental illness is a serious problem and we need to work harder to provide access to mental health services for all affected. Our goal should be to provide compassionate, effective and timely care and to restore daily functioning as much as possible. In order to do this, all levels of government need to be proactive and cooperative in creating an environment conducive to care and support rather than one of protectionism and fear.

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