It’s Not Like the Movies

You may remember old movies like So You Married an Ax Murderer: the general storylines are about mentally ill people who terrorize or kill people. These movies might be funny, or maybe scary, and sometimes just plain gruesome. But like most movies, this type is not realistic – there’s a reason it’s called fiction. The problem is that stereotypes we see in the movies or read about are based more on imagination and perception than reality. Perceptions are not always reliable and, in the case of people with mental illness, many perceptions aren’t even close.

Based on what we see in the movies we might think most violent crime is committed by people with mental illness. We might think that people with severe mental illness are naturally violent, or could become violent, but we would be wrong. In the November 2006 New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Richard Friedman stated that research shows only a small number of violent crimes (3-5% in some studies) are committed by people with mental illness. In fact, the studies show that people with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime than to commit those acts themselves.

In a February 2008 Boston Globe article Dr. Ronald Pies names many studies that show a person who abuses drugs and alcohol is twice as likely to commit a violent act as someone with a severe mental illness. Mental illness could contribute to a person’s abuse of drugs and alcohol, but in that case they are often trying to “self-medicate” when there aren’t enough services available to address their problems. It’s usually a lack of money that limits services for people with severe mental illness.

So, aside from those who also have substance abuse problems, sufferers of mental illness are no more likely to commit violent crimes than you or I.

Dr. Pies shared some good news from these studies: getting and staying with treatment results in a reduced risk of violence, whether for mental illness or for substance abuse. While treatment varies from place to place, it usually includes case management (close contact to help meet individual needs), medication, psychotherapy and group therapy.  In hard economic times funding for programs like these is the first to be cut from budgets, even though these services and programs make our communities better and safer.

Next time you’re watching a movie or reading something that sensationalizes violent crimes committed by someone with mental illness, remember this: it’s either fiction or a very rare exception to the rule. Movies are a business, and sensationalism sells.


Judy Hymas is a Lifeways Case Manager
serving People with Severe Mental Illness.
She can be reached at 889-9167