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The Link between Crime and Mental Disorder Essay

In an effort to understand, and therefore reduce or eliminate crime, studies are conducted that examine the many factors that influence or affect it. One of the influences [or possible influences] that affect crime [particularly violent crime]is mental disorder. Several studies have been carried out that investigate this link, which have uncovered much important information. These studies [as with most studies] however, are not without bias. Things such as definition of mental disorder or abnormality are often questionable, as are sample distributions. There are also individual factors, such as type of mental disorder and previous criminal records of subjects, which can influence the results. After taking these factors into account, the research results when examined, suggest, contrary to popular belief, that individuals with mental disorders are generally no more likely to commit crime than individuals without mental disorder.

It is a common assumption, that whenever a brutal, violent or senseless crime is committed, it is by someone who is mentally ill or sick. Blaming violent and senseless crime on mental disorders may be comforting but it is not necessarily accurate. A stereotype has developed of the ‘insane mass murderer’ largely due to the media, however, research evidence suggests that this stereotype is far from accurate. Much research on the link between crime [specifically to this discussion, violent crime] and mental disorder has been conducted, however there are different factors that need to be taken into account when examining this link. Definition of mental disorder is a major one, along with possible uneven sample distributions. Also, there have been changes in mental health and criminal justice policies that have increasingly made hospitalisation restricted to those who are more socially disruptive or dangerous. With these considerations in mind, research evidence can be then be examined.

As previously stated, there are many problems with the mental disorder definition. The major symptom of mental disorder is abnormal behaviour, however, there is no strict criteria that sufficiently defines abnormality. Behaviour could be labelled abnormal if it deviates from the statistical norm, however, as the American Psychiatric association [1987] notes ‘there are no sharp boundaries between normality and abnormality’. It can be concluded from this then, that there are no sharp boundaries between mental order and mental disorder. Behaviour could also be labelled abnormal if it deviates from the cultural norm.

This is problematic because what society deems as ‘normal’ is subjective and constantly changing. For example, homosexuality was regarded as being a mental disorder until 1973. These are only two of the ways in which mental disorder is possibly identified but others, such as behaviour that ‘is subjectively distressing, deviates from optimal social or psychological functioning or fails to meet some ideal of health’ [Blackburn, 1993, p.247] are all subjective and are by no means exact. As such, these classifications have numerous exceptions. Another element of research on the mental disorder and crime link that is often questioned, is the sample distribution.

Some believe that many of the studies conducted in this area have an uneven sample distribution that introduces bias in the results. As with many studies conducted in the criminology field, there is the question: should only those convicted of crime [and in this case, those officially diagnosed with a mental disorder] be studied or, should only those who indulge in criminal activity but have not yet been detected by the criminal justice system [or those with undiagnosed mental disorders] be studied, or both? Furthermore, if it is decided that both should be studied, how can people who commit crime, but have not been convicted, or people with mental disorders who have not been diagnosed, be included? These are difficult questions that are up to the individual[s] who are conducting the study to answer, and, different answers, can and usually will, dramatically affect the results. This, however, is not the only way in which a sample distribution could become uneven.

A study conducted by Teplin [1984, 1985] cited by Bartol [1999, p.143] examined the tendency of police officers to arrest individuals with a mental disorder. Graduate students of psychology looked at 1382 encounters, and evaluated the mental health of the citizens according to a symptom checklist. The police qualified 506 citizens as suspects and arrested 148. The students classified 30 of the 506 suspects and 14 of the 148 suspects that were arrested as having a mental disorder. Therefore it was found that 20% more individuals were arrested with mental disorder symptoms than those without. This is believed to be due to the fact that many people with a mental disorder have symptoms such as verbal abuse, belligerence, and general disrespect. This makes it fairly understandable that their arrest record is significantly higher than the general population, but it must be understood that it does not indicate a greater proneness to criminal activity.

While considering uneven sample distributions, one must also consider the relatively recent changes in mental health and criminal justice policies.

Long term inpatient care or hospitalisation of the mentally disordered is a practice that has largely disappeared [Bartol, 1999, p.141]. Therefore, the mentally disordered have become a more visible presence in the community, and so, if a problem occurs, it is usually up to the law enforcement officials to handle it. According to Teplin, as a result ” jails and prisons may have become the long-term repository for mentally ill individuals who, in a previous era, would have been institutionalised within a psychiatric facility’ [cited in Bartol, 1999, p.141].

Also, it has been suggested that studies which examine the criminal activity of recently released patients may be biased, as there has been an increased number of patients with previous arrest histories being admitted to mental hospitals – from 15% to 40% over a thirty year period. This is due to an increasing tendency of courts to refer habitual offenders for psychiatric diagnosis. Therefore any post treatment criminal activity may not be related to the mental disorder at all, but more related to their having a previous criminal record. Once these, as well definition issues have been considered, the actual relationship between mental disorder and crime [specifically violent crime], and the research evidence can be examined.

There have been several studies conducted on criminal behaviour in psychiatric patients, with the earlier findings indicating that mentally disordered individuals are no more likely to commit violent crimes than those in the general population. However, more recent research has shown that male psychiatric patients who have a history of at least one violent incident, have a high probability of being violent within a year after being released from hospital.

Rabkin [1979], cited by Bartol [p.142], conducted a review of the criminal behaviour of discharged mental patients, and found that the arrest rate for discharged mental patients was higher than the rate for the general population, particularly for assaultive or violent behaviour. There are two explanations suggested for this. Firstly, a small percentage of the patients studied that had criminal records before being admitted to hospital continued their criminal activities after being released. These patients substantially inflated the arrest rates for the other mental patients. Also there is the factor of arrest bias, as was previously mentioned. Secondly, Rabkin found that most offences committed after discharge were by those diagnosed with alcoholism, substance addiction or personality disorder. Alcoholism and substance abuse appear quite often in this type of research but do not represent serious or typical mental disorders, and the classification of personality disorders are vague and often questioned.

It was found that with these three categories excluded, or considered separately, the remainder of the group appeared to be considerably less dangerous than those in general population.

Another study conducted a 19 month follow up of discharged mental patients in 1968 and 1975 by Steadman, Cocozza and Melick, cited by Blackburn [1993, p. 266] Of the two samples, 6.9% and 9.4% were arrested – about three times higher than the general population rate. It was found that the arrests after release were related to prior arrests, age or alcohol abuse. For patients with no prior arrests, the level was lower than that of the general population.

Similarly, a study conducted by Linqvist and Allebeck {1990] cited by Blackburn {1993} which did a fifteen year follow up of released mental patients found that offence rates for the males were only slightly higher than the general population, but on the other hand, females offended at twice the expected rate. In contrast to these studies, one conducted by Sosowsky, which studied patients with no previous arrest records, found that the arrest rates were five times higher than those of the local county in which it was conducted. It was believed, however, that when other factors such as age, race or socioeconomic status are taken into account in this study, the arrest rate becomes comparable to that of the general population.

The results of these studies imply that criminal activity after discharge moreso depends upon previous arrest and other demographic factors than the mental disorder itself. Another way to examine the mental disorder and crime link is to look at mental disorder in prisoners, as opposed to criminal activity in individuals with a mental disorder.

Mental disorders in prisoners is sometimes believed to be evidence of a link between crime and abnormal behaviour. Research reveals that the rate of mental disorders in prison significantly varies ranging from five to 16 percent psychotic [Teplin, 1990, cited by Bartol, 1999] In New York prisons, it is estimated that about eight percent of inmates have severe mental disabilities while sixteen percent have significant mental disabilities. A study conducted by Taylor of life sentenced prisoners in London [mostly murderers] found that 9% had symptoms of schizophrenia, 13% were found to be depressed and 33% personality disordered.

These statistics are mostly similar to others found in Britain, but are significantly higher than those found elsewhere. This form of research, however is unclear on whether the mental disorder was present before being imprisoned, or if it happened as a result of being imprisoned. It is believed that prison may have detrimental effects on mental states meaning that the mental disorder may have come after the crime was committed. This would not be reflected in the results and so, would therefore introduce a bias. Research evidence indicates that there is no significant link between mental disorder and violence, however, it has been suggested that some disorders increase the risk.

A study conducted in 1982 by Hafner and Boker, cited by Blackburn [p.269] surveyed all 533 case of murder, attempted murder and manslaughter in the Federal Republic of Germany between 1955 and 1964, who were found to be not responsible for their actions because of a serious mental disorder [schizophrenic or affective psychosis, organic brain disorder, mental retardation]. The authors of the survey estimated that the mentally disordered accounted for 2.9% of convictions for serious violence and for 5.6% of murders. Hafner and Boker found that schizophrenia was overrepresented and affective psychosis underrepresented in their sample. Though the risk of serious violence in schizophrenia is very low [about 0.05%], it is much higher than other disorders, such as affective disorders and mental retardation [0.006%].

Depression has also been linked to violence, particularly homicide, mainly among females, Some recent research has indicated that there has been a link between violence and post traumatic stress disorder. Despite the fact that aggression is not among the criteria for diagnosing this disorder, irritability is, and it is also sometimes associated with “unpredictable explosions of aggressive behaviour [American Psychiatric Association, 1987, cited in Blackburn, p. 273]. A study of 100 Vietnam veterans with PTSD found that 97% were explosive and irritable, 87% were socially avoidant and 72%were substance abusers. [Solursh, 1989, cited in Blackburn, p.273. This study, however, is unclear on the actual arrest or assault level.

With the exception of some forms of personality disorder, no mental disorder seems strongly associated with violent behaviour, unless, as was previously stated, there is already a history of violence in the patient. Though schizophrenia has higher rates of violent occurrence, it is important to note that very few patients with this disorder actually commit acts of violence – approximately 5 out of every 10 000 schizophrenics are likely to become violent. Only in very rare case does mental disorder completely absolve anyone of responsibility for their actions. [Bourne and Russo, 1998, p.569]

The link between crime and mental disorder is a hard one to measure, because of the many and various other factors that come into play. Sample distributions are always questionable, as are specific definitions. Also, it is reasonable to assume that because neither crime nor mental disorder is extremely rare, it is inevitable that the two will overlap, however correlation is not causation [Bourne and Russo, 1998, p.571] – the two may exist even in the absence of a causal relationship.

Research evidence suggests that no form of mental disorder [with the possible exception of some forms of personality disorder] seems strongly associated with violent crime, unless, the individual already has a history of violence – some research in this area suggests that these individuals may be dangerous, and are prone to indulging in violent behaviour. However, the stereotype of the psychotic mass murderer that kills indiscriminately is inaccurate. Though, mental disorder may be one of the factors, it is seldom the only factor in play. Having a mental disorder rarely excuses or accounts for any act of crime, violent or otherwise. The numerous studies on the subject have generally found that the link between mental disorder and crime is not as significant as is often assumed.

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