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Media Wrongly Link Violence with Mental Illness

Less than 5 percent of violence in the United States is actually tied to mental illness.


Any time there's a major shooting or similar act of violence that makes nationwide news, media outlets are quick to probe the mind of the killer or killers, often linking actions to psychological issues. While it's indisputable that someone committing a violent act is not psychologically stable, that doesn't mean that individual has a diagnosable illness.

But news reports overstate the link between violence and mental illness, suggests a study published in the journal Health Affairs. Of the hundreds of news reports analyzed by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers, around 2 in 5 connected mental illness with violent behavior toward others, even though less than five percent of violence in the United States is linked with mental illness.

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"Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others and most violence is not caused by mental illness, but you would never know that by looking at media coverage of incidents," lead author Emma E. McGinty, an assistant professor health policy at the Bloomberg School, says in a statement.

The researchers pulled stories published in national media outlets over a 20-year period. The coverage of mental illness in the context of violent crimes didn't simply fail to reduce the stigma of mental infirmity; news reports if anything only served to further strengthen the stereotype of a psychologically unhinged public menace. Between 1994 and 2005, just 1 percent of front-page news connected mental illness and violence. The following decade, between 2005 and 2014, 18 percent of print news outlets did as much.

In the United States, about 20 percent of the population suffers from a mental illness in any given year. Over a lifetime, about 50 percent of individuals have a diagnosable mental health condition. Given those numbers, it's clear that most or even many of those individuals are not violent criminals.

"In an ideal world, reporting would make clear the low percentage of people with mental illness who commit violence," McGinty says.

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Most psychiatric disorders aren't precursors to violence, found a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The only exception the researchers found applied to substance abuse and dependence, the Northwestern University researchers through interviews of 1,659 individuals ages 13 to 25 held at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago.

In fact, according to a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators of violence. Looking at incidents of violence over a 6-month period from a database of 4,480 mentally ill adults, North Carolina State University researchers found that one in three are likely to be victims. Of those who had been victimized, nearly 44 percent reported that it occurred on multiple occasions.

When adults with mental illness do lash out, reported by nearly a quarter of study participants, they do so in domestic settings about two-thirds of the time. Just 2.6 percent of violent acts were carried out in school or workplace settings.

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