Are the Severely Mentally Ill Dangerous?

by Joseph M. Bowers

Tomorrow I’m scheduled to testify to a Colorado legislative committee on proposed legislation to fund more psychiatric beds in our state. Lacking confidence as a public speaker I like to have something prepared to read from in such instances so I wrote proposed testimony and ran it by two advocates I respect for feedback.

In my text I wrote that virtually everyone with a severe mental illness who doesn’t beforehand get needed care will sooner or later become involved with the criminal justice system. It might be a minor incident like trespassing or lighting a fire in the wrong place for cooking or warmth or it might be something serious like what happened at the Kings Sooper in Boulder a year ago.

One respected advocate wrote back that he loved my honesty and transparency but I should delete any reference to the Kings Sooper incident. After all the mentally ill are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. I couldn’t disagree more. There is little in this world more dangerous than paranoia or fear. People suffering with paranoid delusions live in a very scary world. NAMI and even the Treatment Advocacy Center have been saying that we are more often victims than perpetrators for years, but that turns out to be a widespread and deeply entrenched myth.

Because of my respect for NAMI and TAC I believed it and when D.J. Jaffe posted otherwise a few years ago, I called him on it. He sent me links to all the studies that had been done on the subject. Only one reached the politically correct conclusion. It was an outlier and seriously flawed. They had only considered people in treatment for a mental illness. This is less than half the population with a severe mental illness. Data says that those in treatment are indeed less likely to act out violently than the general population. Those not in treatment are more likely to.

DJ argued as he did because he believed spreading this misinformation was doing a disservice to families with a mentally ill member and the mentally ill themselves. I agree. Advocates want to believe that the mentally ill are not dangerous fearing demonizing and mistreatment. That is already too widespread. Perhaps if the general public saw severe mental illness as a threat they would be more inclined to try to do something about this crises we have created through years of neglect. Particularly if they were led to understand two other important facts.

That most people with mental illnesses properly treated will achieve some degree of recovery and many will achieve an advanced state and that the words and actions of a mentally ill person suffering from symptoms like paranoid delusions are not characteristic of who they are when not suffering from a severe illness of a major organ. Most people, I think, would agree that to punish someone for getting sick is barbaric and inhumane yet we do that to the mentally ill routinely.

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