Mental health and violence is an often talked about topic.
But how common is it for someone who is mentally ill to act violently?
Are people who are mentally ill inherently more violent? Is someone like me, who lives with bipolar disorder, more likely to commit a violent crime than someone who doesn’t?
Or are they more likely to be the victim of a crime?
— Trigger warning: I am going to briefly touch on many types of violent crimes. If any of those might be triggering for you, it is not my intention to upset you. My recommendation is that you skip this post, or have a friend read and take notes for you, filtering out anything that might be triggering for you.—
Before I clear up some misconceptions, I want to talk about what it is actually like to live with bipolar disorder.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (type 2) in July of 2010. For months previously, I experienced hypomania— or, an increased energy and irritability— and interpersonal sabotage. I was crabbier than normal, needing less sleep, and doing everything in my power to wreck the relationships I had with others.
Although I knew I had depression (I was diagnosed in about 1999), these behaviors weren’t normal for me. It was causing me to sink further into a hole of misery, and it seemed like I would never be able to claw my way out.
What does bipolar disorder look like for me today, nearly a decade after my diagnosis? It means fatigue, irritability, anxiety, sometimes desperate self-loathing.
But never violence.
Now, that doesn’t mean that someone who is mentally ill cannot commit a violent crime. We have certainly seen it throughout the course of history. But what I hope to show is that occasional correlation does not equal causation. In fact, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators.
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Also, I am not a doctor or mental health professional. Just someone who has lived with anxiety for many years who is passionate about sharing her experiences and tips for success. If you are in crisis call your doctor, then click here for some good mental health resources.
FBI Statistics on Violent Crime
We see violence all over the news. Every time we turn on the television or log on to Facebook, we see stories or murder, war, and other equally horrible crimes. It seems like crime is constantly happening. Is that just the media’s portrayal? Or is it as common as it appears?
According to the FBIs most recent compilation of statistics
In 2018, an estimated 1,206,836 violent crimes occurred nationwide, a decrease of 3.3 percent from the 2017 estimate.
When considering 5- and 10-year trends, the 2018 estimated violent crime total was 4.7 percent above the 2014 level but 9.0 percent below the 2009 level.
There were an estimated 368.9 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018, a rate that fell 3.9 percent when compared with the 2017 estimated violent crime rate and dropped 14.6 percent from the 2009 estimate.
Aggravated assaults accounted for 66.9 percent of violent crimes reported to law enforcement in 2018. Robbery offenses accounted for 23.4 percent of violent crime offenses; rape (legacy definition) accounted for 8.4 percent; and murder accounted for 1.3 percent.
Information collected regarding types of weapons used in violent crime showed that firearms were used in 72.7 percent of the nation’s murders, 38.5 percent of robberies, and 26.1 percent of aggravated assaults.
What can we take from this? Well, violent crime rates began to drop in 2009, but spiked again around 2014. The are now on a decline again. Also, the most prevalent crime seems to be robbery, if I am interpreting the statistics right.
Still, despite being on a decline, there are over a million violent crimes that occur in the United States in a given year (using 2018 as an example). That equates to 100,570 per month. 23, 208 per week. 3,306 per day. 138 per hour.
I’m not trying to belabor the point unnecessarily, but think about that for a minute before you continue reading. 138 violent crimes occur in the United States every hour.
We need to do what we can to keep ourselves safe.
Statistics About Mental Health
How do these figures correlate with mental health? Before I answer that question, it might be helpful to know exactly how many people with mental health issues there are.
According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the following is true:
- 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
- 1 in 25 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
- Approximately 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
- 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
- Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34
- 19.1% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2018 (47.6 million people). This represents 1 in 5 adults.
- 4.6% of U.S. adults experienced serious mental illness in 2018 (11.4 million people). This represents 1 in 25 adults.
- 16.5% of U.S. youth aged 6-17 experienced a mental health disorder in 2016 (7.7 million people)
- 3.7% of U.S. adults experienced a co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness in 2018 (9.2 million people)
I want to further illustrate how common mental health issues are. Imagine you are at a company party with 100 people. 20 of those people experienced mental illness last year. For 4 of them, it was very serious. 1 in 25 people does not really sound like a lot, but using this example, you can see how common serious mental health problems actually are.
Statistics About Violent Crime and Mental Health
Even though the common stereotype states that people with mental illness commit crimes, it is becoming increasingly common for them to become victims themselves.
Harvard medical school did a study that completely dispelled this myth. They found that on the whole, the problem is the media. The media perpetuates the myth that people with mental health issues are more violent than those without by incessantly mentioning it.
Yes, it helps families of victims find closure sometimes if they can have some sort of explanation for the crime taking place. In some cases, the perpetrator was mentally ill and lost control.
But what this really does is reinforce a damaging and often untrue stereotype. It hurts the reputation of those of us who have never become violent.
What are the actual numbers?
The study found that 31% of people who had both a substance abuse disorder and a psychiatric disorder (a “dual diagnosis”) committed at least one act of violence in a year, compared with 18% of people with a psychiatric disorder alone. This confirmed other research that substance abuse is a key contributor to violent behavior. But when the investigators probed further, comparing rates of violence in one area in Pittsburgh in order to control for environmental factors as well as substance use, they found no significant difference in the rates of violence among people with mental illness and other people living in the same neighborhood. In other words, after controlling for substance use, rates of violence reported in the study may reflect factors common to a particular neighborhood rather than the symptoms of a psychiatric disorder.
So, it seems like substance abuse is more of a problem than mental health, but that is a whole other blog post!
The Mentally Ill as Victims
As I mentioned above, people who live with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than those who are neurotypical (meaning, do not live with mental illness.) In fact, they are close to 12 times more likely to be victims than the average person.
According to the article I just linked, here are the rates at which people with mental illness are victimized in comparison to the neurotypical.
- Rape and attempted rape: 22.5x more
- Sexual assault: 15x more
- Aggravated assault (attack for the purpose of inflicting severe bodily injury): 13.1x more
- Robbery with injury: 7.3x more
- Theft of property from a person: 140.4x more
- Household burglary: 4.9x more
- Theft of property from a place: 3.6x more
- Motor vehicle theft: 2.5x more
How You Can Keep Yourself Safe
Knowing this, I want to do what I can to keep myself safe, thereby keeping my family safe. After all, I tend to be where my children are, so if I fall victim to violence, it is likely they will be present too. Rather than get into, the WHY (Why people with mental illness are more likely to be victims), I want to offer the HOW. How can we keep ourselves safe?
Invest in a Home Security System
Many people are hesitant to do this because of the cost, but it is totally worth it. Depending on what company you use, they are fairly affordable, and customizable to your needs. It is at least worth calling and scheduling someone to come out and give you a quote.
It sounds silly, but I have heard that even having the sign in your yard (Ex. This home is protected by XYZ Company) can act as a deterrent for criminals. So, even if you think you might forget to arm it at night, simply having the system can act as its own form of security.
Life hack: Set a reminder on your phone to arm it at night. I run my life by reminders on my phone. Thanks, brain fog!
Get a video doorbell
One of the best purchases you can make is one of the Ring (or similar company) doorbells. (FYI- I am not being paid by them to say this, and I am not affiliated with this company. I just honestly think they are a good idea.)
They are relatively inexpensive. You can capture video of people approaching your doorway, and most systems allow you to store video history for a reasonable cost per month. This could be helpful in identifying a burglar who has run off after committing a crime. The system also can send alerts to your phone when there is motion by your front door. So, in the middle of the night, if someone is trying to break in, it will ding you before they are even in your house. If you have forgotten to arm your security system, you can do it then!
Compile an If I Go Missing folder
When I first heard about it, I thought it seemed to be overkill, if you’ll pardon my word choice. But the more I dive into the world of true crime, the more I see that these crimes happen to anyone, but especially those who are mentally ill. I need to do what I can to proactively protect myself.
I got the idea for an If I Go Missing folder on the podcast Crime Junkie. (They are amazing if you haven’t checked them out yet. They are funny, yes, but they are largely empathetic, and truly care about seeing justice. I will post where you can follow them below. Also, not affiliated with them. Just obsessed.)
In a past blog post, I wrote my thoughts on making an If I Go Missing folder, so check it out and make sure you share. It could literally save a life.
Follow the Crime Junkie Rules
While we’re on the subject of my favorite true crime podcast, I want to share some more of their wisdom. They periodically reference Crime Junkie Rules, pieces of advice they have for their listeners. The hosts are passionate about keeping their listeners safe, and it inspired me to do the same for you.
- You never really know anyone. Ever. (Episode 4: Robert Fisher)
- If you have a secret, for the love of God, tell someone. Anyone! Or you will likely be murdered. (Episode 5: Karina Holmer)
- An If I Go Missing file is essential. (Episode 7: Bryce Laspisa)
- Never take a polygraph. (Episode 8: Amy Weidner)
- Be Weird. Be Rude. Stay Alive! (Episode 14: Herb Baumeister)
- Never stay in a Murder Motel! (Episode 21: L.I.S.K.)
- Never get into a white van. EVER! (Episode 22: Kenia Monge)
- If you get pulled over by an unmarked car, it’s OK to put your flashers on and call police to verify. (Episode 26: Ashley Freeman & Laura Bible)
- Always get a lawyer. (Episode 32: The Clermont Killer)
- It’s never a mannequin. (Episode 28: Green River Killer)
Follow Crime Junkie here-
Be Weird. Be Rude. Stay Alive.
The facts are plain. Those like me that live with mental illness are more likely to be victims of a violent crime. It’s a scary world, but there are action steps we can take to stay safe.
After all, despite what your brain enjoys telling you, the world would miss you if you were gone. You truly matter.
What was the most interesting thing you learned here? Let me know in the comments below! And please share this post if you found it helpful.
I hope these facts about mental health and crime encourage you to think differently, and also keep yourself safe.
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