Substance abuse greatly boosts the chances of violent behavior in healthy subjects, too, suggesting that drug use may be a much better predictor of violence than mental illness. What is more, proper treatment of mental illness can effectively eliminate the small risk of violent behavior posed by a grave disorder. In the MacArthur study, Steadman’s team found no difference in the prevalence of violence between the severely mentally ill who were on their medications and mentally healthy people, whereas unmedicated patients lashed out at significantly higher rates. Of course, sick individuals who stop taking their medications could represent more difficult cases. Nevertheless, these results suggest that improving adherence to treatment may lessen the chances that severely ill people will behave violently.
Victims, Not Perpetrators
The stereotype of the crazed individual killing multiple strangers in public simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Although some noteworthy tragedies fit this description, these instances are quite rare. In fact, given how few mentally ill people become violent, a person with a severe psychological disorder is more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence.
Mentally ill people are victims in their own right. A severe psychiatric condition is a terrible burden, even without being treated with suspicion by the community. A widespread belief that the afflicted are violent contributes to the stigma of mental illness and as such may interfere with their seeking and obtaining appropriate assistance. Debunking this misconception will likely lead to progress in helping troubled individuals and, by making treatment more broadly accessible, greatly reduce the threat that a small number of these individuals may pose to society.