Mental Illness and the Law

October 21, 2012

Mental illness and the Law is a sensitive topic but a topic that I believe needs to be addressed.  With recent tragedies of mass shootings, it would appear that people with mental illness are more violent and more likely to commit a crime.  Is that really true?

According to an Overview of Violence and Mental Illness published in June 2003 in World Psychiatry, the official journal of the World Psychiatric Association, “mental illnesses are neither necessary, nor sufficient causes of violence.”  In fact, “the major determinants of violence continue to be socio-demographic and socio-economic factors such as being young, male, and of lower socio-economic status.”

Additional conclusions are

  • “Members of the public undoubtedly exaggerate both the strength of the relationship between major mental disorders and violence, as well as their own personal risk from the severely mentally ill.”  The fact is that it is far more likely that people with a serious mental illness will be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator of violence.
  • “Substance abuse appears to be a major determinant of violence and this is true whether it occurs in the context of a concurrent mental illness or not. Those with substance disorders are major contributors to community violence, perhaps accounting for as much as a third of self-reported violent acts, and seven out of every 10 crimes of violence among mentally disordered offenders.”
  • “It appears that too much past research has focused on the person with the mental illness, rather than the nature of the social interchange that led up to the violence. “

Now that it is established that mental illness alone is not associated with more violence and crime, in my opinion, the more prevalent question is how the Law interacts with individuals with mental illness?

I have found that the best outcome depends on the training among law enforcement officers, the understanding of mental illness in a community and the access to mental health services.

Although I have never been violent or committed a crime, I have had experience with the law as a result of my illness.  When I was struck with postpartum psychosis, the law enforcement officers that responded, automatically assumed that I had taken illegal drugs.  It was primarily due to the response of my family and physician that I was treated for a medical condition.

During the process of my recovery, my experience has included being forcibly handcuffed (still have a scar on my wrist as a result), having my rights and voluntary request for treatment ignored as well as not being provided with emergency care when I had comprehensive health insurance.  The experiences I had not only caused pain and suffering, it also caused post-traumatic stress for years to follow.

The most positive experiences I had with the Law was when there was a trained crisis intervention officer as well as female officer present.  It is of utmost importance that the responders are properly trained in the area of mental health.  My experiences revealed there was prejudice and ignorance in the handling of an individual with a mental illness, who was in crisis.  I have heard of others having similar experiences.  So how can this be prevented?

In my opinion, the most important preventative measure is education.  Increasing awareness and education of mental illness not only for law enforcement officers but the community in general helps lead to more positive outcomes.  Having access to mental health services in every community can help those with a mental illness get through their crisis.  Sadly, often budget cuts and lack of priority for mental health services makes access to care difficult in many communities.

I know this is a tough topic to discuss but please share your insight and opinions on mental illness and the law.  Positive or negative, I want to hear from you and, if comfortable, share your own experiences.

Resources and additional reading:

Violence and delusions: data from the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study

NAMI: Legal Support

Violence and mental illness: an overview

Law Enforcement Responses to People with Mental Illnesses

Mental Illness and the Law – Minds on the Edge


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