“Crazy” Criminals

As the story of the Pennsylvania young men murdered by a peer continues to develop, I wanted to point out an important aspect of the crime that may lead to more harm than good.

So the fact that somebody would even consider committing this crime is atrocious. It is a violent, cruel, and unnecessary act. Homicide, then body mutilation. What provokes people to do these things?

A common answer to that question is mental illness. People with severe cases of psychosis, schizophrenia, and other personality disorders are categorized by the select few who make national headlines. The more often we associate those with severe mental illness as criminals, people to be put away in prisons and institutions and pretend their lives don’t matter or, worse, cause nothing but harm to the rest of the population.

In lies where myths and misconceptions begin to bubble to the surface. We let our fears take control, assume a single face to a problem to make it easier to comprehend, and end up painting mental illness as a demon to slay. We cannot expect crime to disappear if we misattribute its cause.

So what are the real statistics associating mental illness with crime rates? According to the Washington Post, mentally ill people are actually disproportionately victimized by violent crime. But many complex factors play into how severe mental illness may develop and turn to crime. Substance abuse and unemployment are the top offenders, and when we leave mental illness untreated, each reason turns into a vicious cycle. Substance abuse is an illness in of itself, creating dependence upon alcohol and/or drugs, while mentally ill people often face difficulties keeping jobs and being hired in the first place.

TIME Magazine also found information about this subject. Only about 4% of interpersonal violence in the United States can be attributed to mental illness, yet close to 40% of news stories about mental illness connect it to violent behavior that harms other people. And while it is an honorable mission to improve the country’s mental health treatment sector, doing so with the intentions of lessening violence furthers the stigma.

The constant media attention mental illness receives is backed by our stigma, not evidence. And when we try to isolate mental illness as the sole reason for crime, we ignore the other areas of society that need improvement and provoke mental illness and the stigma to flourish in the first place. Schizophrenia and psychosis become the “others,” the ugly enemies that threaten our way of life. It’s an attribution bias that, from a psychological perspective, makes the world simplified.

The fact is, mental illness is complicated. It’s a messy topic for those discussing it and those that live with it every day. We cannot expect to lock every suspected mentally ill person in prison and expect them to magically heal. It’s just a more dangerous situation. With a stigma running rampant, the mentally ill are huge targets for discrimination, isolation and violence when incarcerated.

How can we break the bonds between mental illness and crime? It starts with compassion. Providing more mental health resources may look expensive, but in the long run, we would be saving lives in countless ways. We should not see problems solved from locking up mentally ill people for nonviolent crimes. Today, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail holds more people with serious mental illness than the largest psychiatric hospital.

Law enforcement is not healthcare. There’s a reason why they are separate. People simply cycled through the prison system miss the opportunity to receive actual treatment and support, limiting them from potentially setting themselves on the right path in life. There is already an overflow of people incarcerated, let alone conditions that might take care of people’s well-beings.

Now back to this particular headlining story of the four missing young men expecting to make a drug deal and ending up buried twelve feet underground in a mass grave. Reports say the perpetrator suffers from schizophrenia. Does that mean this disease directly leads to violence? NO. Most people with schizophrenia are not violent, and even if they do exude violent tendencies, they are more likely caused from childhood conduct problems and other disorders rather than schizophrenia itself. We must distinguish the clear differences between rage or aggression, and psychosis or an intense state of fear.

Hallucinations and delusions that come with psychosis and schizophrenia, whether they be visual and/or auditory, can be very scary for the one experiencing them. And they might go without medication or any treatment to avoid the stereotypes assumed from these symptoms, that they will become the monster news outlets paint them into. It is society’s responsibility to show compassion and empathy. We must separate what a criminal looks like from a person suffering from mental illness because chances are, they look very different. No longer can we clump together a hodgepodge of assumptions into a single prison system. We must put faces and lives behind the orange jumpsuits and help them in whatever way we can, whether that’s rehabilitation behind bars or treatment in a mental health facility.

Before we rely upon a single catchy headline to define what violence looks like in America, let’s educate ourselves as to what our words and actions mean and the repercussions they have on a significant portion of people. People deserving of love and respect.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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