More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Mentally ill unfairly portrayed as violent
By Dr. Ronald Pies in The Boston Globe
February 25, 2008

The man had his hands around my neck so quickly I didn't have time to react. I was a second-year resident in psychiatry. He was an impulsive loner with a history of alcoholism who, unbeknownst to the staff, had returned to the inpatient unit intoxicated.

Fortunately, before the man could do serious harm, three patients had pulled him off me. In 25 years of psychiatric practice, this was the first and last time any patient laid a hand on me in violence.

And yet, in recent weeks, the news has been full of horrendous stories involving killers with known or suspected mental illness. As I write this, the nation is still reeling from the shootings at Northern Illinois University. Press reports now indicate that the shooter had a long history of mental illness and had recently stopped taking antidepressant medication.

To make matters worse, three psychotherapists have been assaulted or murdered in the past month. The most brutal attack involved a Manhattan psychologist murdered by a man who also gravely injured a psychiatrist. The New York Times reported that the accused man blamed the psychiatrist for having him institutionalized 17 years ago; apparently, the psychologist was not the intended victim. And only a few weeks ago, a social worker in Andover was killed, allegedly by her 19- year-old patient, during a visit to the man's home.

What do these attacks say about mental illness? Surely they create the impression that individuals with mental illness are a dangerous and violent lot. And as professor John Monahan and colleagues at the University of Virginia School of Law wrote recently, "the more a member of the general public believes that mental disorder and violence are associated, the less he or she wants to have an individual with a mental disorder as a neighbor, friend, colleague, or family member."

Yet the impression that we are awash in a sea of psychotic violence is clearly unfounded. Writing in the November 16, 2006, edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Richard A. Friedman of the Weill Cornell Medical College notes that only about 3 to 5 percent of violence in the general population is attributable to those with "serious mental illness," conventionally defined as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder. The combined lifetime prevalence of these conditions in the US general population is estimated at 19 percent - far larger than their contribution to violence.

Furthermore, it is wrong to tar all emotionally disturbed individuals with the same stereotype-tainted brush.

True: A 1980s study from the National Institute of Mental Health found, using community surveys, that individuals with schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder were two to three times as likely as those without these illnesses to commit acts of violence. However, to put this in perspective, substance abusers had more than twice the rate of violence as those with these serious mental illnesses.

Moreover, the study found that the vast majority of individuals with serious mental illness were not violent: The lifetime prevalence of violence among people with schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder was 16 percent, versus 7 percent among people without a mental illness. Those with anxiety disorders had no increased risk of violence.

Even more reassuring is the 1998 MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, led by John Monahan and Henry Steadman, now of Policy Research Associates, which advocates for better mental health services. Unlike the NIMH study, which surveyed people randomly in the community, the MacArthur study evaluated psychiatric patients recently discharged from the hospital. And unlike the NIMH study, which relied solely on self-reports of violence, the MacArthur study used a combination of self-reports, collateral informants, and police and hospital records.

The MacArthur study found that the prevalence of violence among discharged psychiatric patients without a substance abuse disorder was similar to that among community-dwellers who didn't abuse substances. Furthermore, violence by these discharged patients rarely involved vicious attacks on strangers or clinicians. Usually, it resembled violence committed by other community-dwellers, such as hitting a family member inside the home. Lethal violence among the discharged patients was very rare.

In the February 2008 issue of Psychiatric Services, Monahan and Steadman conclude:

"For people [with mental illness] who do not abuse alcohol and drugs, there is no reason to anticipate that they present greater risk than their neighbors."​
That said, mental disorders do increase susceptibility to substance abuse, and thus indirectly increase risk of violence. Moreover, as Eric Elbogen of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine wrote me in an e-mail, "a subgroup of people with mental illness likely uses alcohol and drugs to 'self-medicate' psychiatric symptoms." In my experience, this behavior may reflect the inadequate, fragmented care often provided to those with mental illness who also abuse drugs or alcohol so-called "dual diagnosis" patients.

The image of the violent mentally ill person must also be tempered by research from Linda A. Teplin, of Northwestern University. Teplin finds that those with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of a violent crime. Among psychiatric outpatients, about 8 percent reported committing a violent act, whereas about 27 percent reported being the victim of a violent crime.

What can be done for the relatively few mentally ill individuals who do become violent? The good news is that adherence to treatment is associated with reduced risk of violence. Research from Elbogen and colleagues finds that as self-reported adherence to outpatient psychiatric treatment increases, violence decreases. Though treatment varied significantly from site to site, Dr. Elbogen tells me that "typically [patients] had a combination of case management, pharmacotherapy, [and] psychotherapy or group therapy."

An understanding and supportive family may also reduce the risk of violence in their emotionally disturbed loved ones. Finally, all of us can support increased funding for comprehensive, compassionate treatment of those with mental illness, substance abuse, or both.

Recent events have shown us that anyone may become the victim of a violent person with severe mental illness. And yet, we must put the violence-mental illness link into perspective. The patient who assaulted me more than 25 years ago was 1 in 1,000. Nearly all those I have treated since have been nonviolent. Most have coped heroically with unspeakable sorrow and pain. In truth, I would trust many of them with my life.

Dr. Ronald Pies is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University and a professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y.


This topic is such a soft spot for me.

I was so sad to hear that there was another shooting at a school. I felt sad for the victims, their families, and yes, the shooter. However, my sadness quickly turned into fury when I heard the "...the shooter has a history of mental illness" :rant:


I agree with you too Lana. It is irritating and maddening to say the least when the media continues to focus on and pretty much implies that having a mental illness will mean that you are violent. :rant:

Seriously for how many people in the world that are or have suffered from a mental illness, if we were all violent wouldn't the world be a much scarier unsafe place?


I sometimes wonder whether some folks use someone elses mental illness to absolve themselves from behaving in a civil manner. For example: ridiculing, poking fun of, humiliating, generally bullying someone with mental illness until they can no longer cope effectively then shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Well he/she obviously had mental health issues if they reacted so strongly" Not one stops to think, "how did I contribute to this" or "what can I do to make a positive change?" or even "what can we learn from this so as to prevent such tragedies from happening again?" I have yet to see a headline like that.

Look at the whole Britney Spears fiasco. Poor girl is loosing her mind and they stick more cameras into her face, into her life, including that of her children (even during visitations!!) and headline their magazines with "bi-polar Britney", "troubled singer", "crazy partying", and others. I don't know about others, but if I had even one person stick their camera in my face and snap a few shots they'd probably have to peel me off them with a crowbar. :D


I sometimes wonder whether some folks use someone elses mental illness to absolve themselves from behaving in a civil manner.
Indeed they do,hence the term "not guilty by reason of insanity" It's a catch all phrase for those that do not want to take responsibility for their actions. Insanity being of course any mental illness the accused and his/her defense lawyer deem more appropriate and more effective at the time.


True enough, Lallieth. Some do that also.

I was also referring to those that taunt those with mental illnesses, pushing buttons to evoke reaction for their own amusement, then when the person reacts, claiming their "innocence" or that they were just kidding, or something equally ignorant.

Think of a scenario where a couple breaks up and one of the persons takes up with someone else, and uses that to play jealous games, or to humiliate and ridicule the ex, sometimes to "punish" them for breaking up, and sometimes to justify the breakup (eg. "See? I told you he/she was crazy") That kind of stuff breaks my heart and makes my skin crawl, all at the same time.


Lallieth with all due respect I happen to partially disagree with you. I don't think that "not guilty by reason of insanity" is a catch all phrase used for those that don't want to take responsibility for their actions. I do think that there are legitimate cases of people that require the use of that defence and to be honest I am glad that they can use that defence because it gives them the opportunity to acknowledge that they have a mental illness and to get the help that they require.

While I do agree that some defence counsel use it inappropriately at times, I can also see where they are coming from on this. They are trying and obligated to provide the best possible defence they can for their client and if it means using a defence such as this whether true or not, they are free to do so but in my opinion that is what expert testimony is for.


The way I see it, I've been hurt far more in my life than I would ever hurt someone else.

Also, I've been provoked into panic reactions and anger a whole number of times, and know how humiliating and shaming it can be.
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