Posted by: jedwardswright | January 20, 2011

Are Mentally Ill People Violent?

Whenever a particularly horrendous crime occurs, you inevitably hear some variation on the comment, “A person would have to be sick in the head to do such a thing!”

There are two reasons to be concerned about this thinking.

  1. People become afraid of people with mental health conditions.
  2. People with mental health conditions and their families may become afraid that they have the potential to become violent.

Are people with mental health conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia prone to be violent? Should the general public, family members and even people who have these conditions be afraid that someone who is mentally ill may suddenly snap and go on a rampage?

The Article

Yesterday I read an opinion column in the Toronto Globe and Mail in which author Bill Wilkerson addresses these issues in the context of the Arizona shooting tragedy. Wilkerson has more than a bit of experience dealing with the subject: he is the co-founder of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, and is mental health advisor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

What he found should allow a lot of concerned folks to breathe a little easier.  In his article, Wilkerson cites a recent study by an American organization, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that found most murderers in the US do not suffer from any mental health conditions. In fact, the lead author of this study, Dr. Eric Elbogen of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, went so far as to state that having a mental illness does not predispose anyone to commit any violent acts.[i]

The common misperception that mentally ill people are prone to violence likely comes from yet another misconception. Despite what most people believe, psychopaths, who make up the majority of mass murderers and serial killers, are not considered to be mentally ill.  In other words, it is not people with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia who are committing these senseless, violent crimes.

According to Dr. Robert D. Hare, a major authority on psychopathy, in his landmark book Without Conscience, “psychopathic killers, however, are not mad, according to accepted legal and psychiatric standards.” While I am not happy with his use of the word “mad” in connection with mental illness, Hare’s message is clear: Psychopaths are human beings who lack empathy and morality, but they are completely rational people who fully understand what they are doing.[ii]

How the Mentally Ill Are Affected by Violence

Mentally ill people are rarely violent to others, but Wilkerson reminds us that they are often victims of violence, and also tend to be violent to themselves.

Psychiatry Today, citing a study from Northwestern University, states that “more than one-fourth of persons with severe mental illness are victims of violent crime in the course of a year, a rate 11 times higher than that of the general population.” The same study estimated that almost 3 million people with serious mental health conditions are victims of violence each year in the USA.[iii] Rather than being afraid of the mentally ill, including people with depression, society needs to acknowledge the need to protect these vulnerable individuals.

How are the mentally ill violent towards themselves? cites an unnamed study that claims 0.75% of the American population practices self-mutilation. Their site indicates that many people who hurt themselves have borderline personality disorder or other dissociative disorders and most suffer from depression[iv].

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the number of suicides in America in 2007 was approaching the 35,000 mark, [v] while Statistics Canada reports that there were almost 3,000 suicides in their country.[vi] In fact, NIMH reports that suicide has surpassed homicide as the leading cause of violent deaths. Suicide is most common among people struggling with mental illnesses, especially depression.[vii]

If there was an epidemic which was claiming well over 30,000 victims per year in the US, there would be outrage and panic. Attention and resources would be quickly focused on stopping that horrible disease in its tracks. There would be great concern and sympathy for those who were suffering. Instead, the mentally ill are treated too often with suspicion and skepticism, and hurt rather than helped.

Mentally Ill People Need Your Support

People with mental health conditions are not a threat to others. In fact, we are more preyed upon than other members of your community. We harm themselves more than anyone else. We are your friends, neighbors, co-workers, and maybe even your relatives and you walk among us every day, often without realizing it.

The next time someone commits a horrible crime, remember, please, that it is unlikely that anyone with a mental illness of any kind was involved. We are our own worst enemies, not yours.


[i] Wilkerson, Bill. “Take Mental Illness Out of the Arizona Debate.” The Globe and Mail.  January 19, 2011.

 [ii] Hare, Robert D., Ph.D. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. (1993; Simon & Schuster: NY, 1995)

[iii] Levin, Aaron. “People With Mental Illness More Often Crime Victims.” Psychiatric News.  2 September 2005, Vol. 40, 17: 16

[iv] Frey, Rebecca J., Ph,D. “Self-Mutilation.” Healthline, accessed January 20 2011,

[v] Table “Number of Suicides by Sex, Race and Age in 2007.” National Institute of Mental Health, accessed January 20, 2011,


[vi] Table “Suicides and suicide rate, by sex and by age group.” Statistics Canada, accessed January 20, 2011,

[vii] Wilkerson, “Take Mental Illness Out of the Arizona Debate.”


  1. Can I just say what a relief to discover an individual who definitely knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You genuinely know how to bring an dilemma to light and make it important. A lot more men and women have to read this and realize this side from the story. I cant think youre not a lot more popular since you actually have the gift.

  2. Thank you so much for your positive comments!
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  3. Reblogged this on A Darker Shade of Blue and commented:

    Recently, I have seen comments on Facebook and elsewhere claiming that individuals responsible for mass murders or other horrible crimes must be mentally ill, so this post seems to me to be quite relevant again.

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