The Debate Between Mental Disorder And Violence Criminology Essay

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The debate on a relationship between mental disorder of individuals and their participation in violence has been on for quite a long time. Before the 1960's, a lot of assumptions were made as to the link between major mental illness and violence (Hart et al, 2009). The relation between mental disorders and violence is however a complex one, however, the failure to acknowledge any association between violence and mental disorder can have significant implications at a public policy level because this prevents politicians and legislators from dealing with the problem in a compassionate and scientifically based manner that would affect the people that really need the help, protection and assistance from the law (Bradford, 2008).

Each school of psychology has its own unique concept of its approach to mental illness; psychoanalysts view it as a retreat from unbearable stress and conflict, cognitive psychologists link it to overstimulation and thought disorders while behavioural theorists might look to influences from the environment such as agents of socialization, for example, family experiences and social rejections. Regardless of the cause of mental illness, is there a link between it and crime? (Siegel and McCormick, 2010).

In determining if there is indeed a relationship, I shall give a summary on some researches that support the relationship between mental disorder and violence. After which I shall then offer a summary of researches that do not only support the relationship but believe that other factors come into consideration. Then I shall consider some the Canadian law in respect to mental disorder, i.e. the Canadian Law on its stance, where mental disorder is concerned and where it is not concerned. Finally, I shall then offer a conclusion to the topic: Summarize and analyze the current academic research on the current relationship between individuals who have a mental disorder and their participation in violence. Discuss the Canadian law (NCRMD - "Not Criminally Responsible because of a Mental Disorder) associated with this construct, highlighting the strong points of each research opinion and the effectiveness of the Canadian Law on mental disorder.

Mental Illness and Crime

Once a person has the label 'mentally insane', the person's chance of being accepted by the society as a normal person would drastically reduce. This would then lead to a loss of self worth by the individual and the label would end up defining the character of the person. By labelling, a person's chance of committing a crime will increase (Siegel and McCormick, 2010).

Early research has shown that many offenders who engage in violence or violent crimes are people who suffer from one type of mental disorder. Research also shows that people with cases of mental disorder are more likely to commit crime than those without mental illness, but research has also shown that those who have been hospitalised for mental disorders where less likely to be arrested than those who have not been (Siegel and McCormick, 2010). The million dollar question is: Is there a link between mental disorder and violence?

Research Supporting Link

Early research shows that many offenders who engage in serious violent crimes suffer from on sort of mental disorder or the other (Siegel and McCormick, 2010). Those with psychosis are known to present an increased risk of violence towards others relative to the general population. Perhaps less well known is the fact that they are also at substantially increased risk of being victims of violence (Dean et al, 2007). Outcome studies report an association between violence and mental illness (Yates et al, 2010). Hart et all (2009) in the data compiled and analysed arrived at the conclusion that psychosis was significantly associated with a 49% to 68% increase in the odds of violence relative to the odds of violence in the absence of psychosis.

Why might psychosis be linked with violence? There are at least three possible explanations. It is possible that psychosis is a cause of violence. Psychotic symptoms may provide a delusional motivation for violence or interfere with the ability to manage interpersonal conflict. Psychosis also may be a consequence of violence; maybe violence triggers the onset of psychotic symptoms in people who are so predisposed. Finally, psychosis may be a simple correlate of violence. It might play a contributing role in the perpetration of violent crimes if there are presence of other factors such as, stressful life events, lack of social support, personality traits, substance use, victimization, and so forth (Hart et al, 2009). The last point is another aspect which I shall consider under research that are of the view that mental disorder is not the only link between mental disorder and violence.

Although most patients with mental illness are law-abiding and nonviolent, they are at high risk for recidivistic aggressive and criminal behaviour. After their discharge from the hospital, they are frequently arrested and incarcerated, then hospitalized again, discharged, and then rearrested (Yates et al, 2010). The fear of some psychiatrists is that further acknowledging of the relationship between mental disorder and crime will lead to further stigmatization of people with mental illness, therefore doing more harm than good ( Bradford, 2008). The relationship of people with mental disorder, violent and non violent crime was dependent on the extent and severity of the symptoms of mental illness. Though, there is little known about the relationship between mental illness and non violent crime, however, some it has been found that people with high level of mental disorder symptoms are more probable to engage in non violent criminal activity than those with low level of symptoms.

Now the basis of research is to find out whether the tendency to commit violent crime with people with serious mental illness changes over time as the severity of psychological symptoms changes and it seems more probable that the propensity to commit violent crime among individuals with psychotic disorder will change as the severity of symptoms change. But the strength of the relationship depends on other factors like age, environment but not mainly on gender. In fact, mentally ill women were found to be more prone to violent crime than mentally ill men (Fischer et al, 2008).

Community studies have proven that people with mental illness is associated with at least fourfold increase in the chances of committing violent crime than the normal general population. Also there is no general significance on the impact on gender and people with mental illness. A relationship however was found between personality disorders, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder and violent crime (Scott, 2008).

Mentally disordered persons can be a challenging group of people in the aspect of being managed, this is as a result of their chaotic lifestyle, peer pressure, substance abuse and more importantly, no means of sustaining any social relationship with family, friends or relatives (Ho et al, 2008).

Research showing other opinions

It is not that the theorists in this research don't support the link; they are of the opinion that mental disorder is not the only link responsible for violent acts or crimes, but that it is an equal factor among other factors that constitute violent crimes (co morbid factors). Most people think that its only people with mental disorders like schizophrenia that are mainly responsible for violent crimes but statistics show that it is people with mental disorders plus another co morbid factor, either substance abuse or other factors (Dorn et al, 2008).

Studies show that people with only mental disorders pose just a little more risk of violence than those without whereas, people with mental disorders plus another co morbid factor certainly pose a high risk of violence than those with mental disorders alone (Elbogen and Johnson, 2009).

The tendency for violence will be reduced if other multivariate factors like treatment for physical abuse, alcohol use and substance abuse or substance dependence, ensuring job stability and therapy on family issues like divorce are settled. These co morbid factors are triggers for violence. Also perceived individual threat is another trigger for violence with people that have mental disorder. In trying to clarify the link between mental illness and violence a few conclusions were reached; mental illness is not the only reason for violence. The strength of the relationship between mental illness and violence is dependent on a web of co morbid factors. People with substance abuse and co-occurring mental illness have a higher risk of violence than those with each problem alone (Elbogen and Johnson, 2009).

The community plays a large role in encouraging of factor that precipitate violence in people with mental disorder. If those with mental disorder are not treated properly, they are more likely to engage in violence and in return the complexity of their mental condition worsens leading to increased substance use or dependence and the impairment of social functioning. The situation is not helped if the environment is such that crime and violence. This is because violence begets violence, thus the cycle of violence continues and the mental condition of people worsens. Mental illness, substance abuse and violence play a major role in cycle (Dorn et al, 2008).

Co morbid factors like psycopathy, substance abuse and antisocial personality disorder act as barriers in the treatment of mentally disordered people. It has been observed that the substance abuse by men with schizophrenia and psycopathy did not necessarily lead to an increase in violent crime, hereby suggesting a more complex relationship. Another reason for increase in violence might not be as a result of mental illness of people as people normally assume, but as a result of the socially disadvantaged environment. A lot of mentally ill people live in these areas, and their mental condition does not help matters and most times contributes to their commission of violent crime (Scott, 2008). Quinsey, Harris, Rice, and Cormier (2006) concluded the following:

The presence of schizophrenia and psychotic symptoms exhibited around the time of the index offense or admissions to hospital were negatively related to risk. Psychosis, psychotic symptoms, and exacerbation of those symptoms have little value as indicators of the risk of violence in offender populations (p. 113).

Canadian Law on Mental Disorder

The Courts will like to hold a person responsible for his or her criminal act once it has been proven that the person committed the crime accused of. But due to recent developments in medical history and law, it has been the belief that it is wrong to hold a person responsible for his actions if the person is not in his or her right state of mind. Also the courts would not want to leave a person who can't be held criminally responsible without some mean of supervision where the courts are sure that the person would not be at risk to the society (Pilon, 2002).

The basis for the law on mental disorder started from the 1842 British Promulgation on the McNaughton Case by the House of Lords, the common law defence of 'insanity' was then incorporated into the Canadian Legislation in 1892. Early legal definition was that of "natural imbecility, natural disease of mind and incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of his or her act omission and knowing that it was wrong" (Pilon, Para 2). If the person was found unfit to stand trial, he or she was kept in strict custody at the pleasure of the Lieutenant Governor of the province. The law was later amended in 1975 to warn against assumptions that all mentally ill people were prone to violence and the forceful detention of people, hence denying freedom of movement. It was agreed that detention should be imposed when justified. In 1986 a bill was introduced to reform the existing law concerning mental disorder, it complied with the charter of human rights in regards to the accused person. It set a limit as to the number of years that n accused can be held for (2yrs and 10yrs, this generated a lot of criticism as the Attorneys General debated whether it would be right to release a dangerous individual back into the society just because the law said that the person could spend only a particular amount of time in detention. It also replaced the Lieutenant Governor with Boards of Review in each province. The most significant change was that of the defence of "insanity" to "mental disorder" to cover a broad range of psychiatric illnesses.

In 1991, it was found that some sections of the legislation were found to be infringing on the rights of individuals based on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms therefore making them invalid. The court gave the legislation time to come up with a new legislation while giving the 1986 bill temporary validity status. Unable to reach an agreement, a bill was published known as "Proposal to amend the Criminal Law concerning mental disorder". It is the famous Bill C-30 with some of its propositions coming to effect in 1992. Though there were still some issues that were not dealt with, like Non-Insane Automatism, the "Fitness" Standard and The Definition of Mental Disorder, the Bill C-30 has few critics maybe from the fact that a 15 year period was used in studying the flaws of the previous law, also because the more controversial issues have not been proclaimed (Pilon, 2002).

In 2005, Canada received Royal Assent to pass new legislation that will reform the provisions on Mental Disorder. The new legislation is said to give more power to the Board of Reviews, increase participation of victims in hearings and dispositions, transfer of persons for rehabilitation purposes, release of people that are not deemed dangerous to the society amongst other things (Rudnicki, 2005).


Early research assumed that there was a relationship between mental disorder and violence (Hart et al, 2009). But recent studies have given two conclusions: The first, that there is an association between violence and mental illness (Yates et al, 2010). Those with psychosis are more prone to committing violent crime than the general population (Dean et al, 2007). The second conclusion is that mental disorder does not have a strong relationship with violence, and other factors cause violence. Also the strength of the relationship between mental disorders is dependent on the severity of the symptoms of the mental illness (Fischer et al, 2008). Other researchers believe that co morbid factors like substance abuse, psychosis, psychopathy and anti social personality disorders play another contributing role in the committing of violence among people with mental disorders (Scott, 2008). Dorn et al (2008) conclude that mental disorder in people is a contributing factor along with substance abuse in the participation of violence. In addition to substance abuse, factors like environment stressors, family negligence, and history of serious illness are also co morbid factors that increase the potency of committing crime among mentally ill people.

In answer to the question: Is there a relationship between mental disorder and violence? The answer is yes there is a relationship but the next stage of research should be in determining the strength and extent of the relationship between mental disorder and violence. This is because in proving the extent of the relationship will go far in help with risk assessment and trying to predict violent offenders and hereby reduce it. Also the Canadian Law is trying her possible best to achieve a balance between protecting the society from would be dangerous individuals and helping those with mental disorder whether they are violent offenders or not. It speaks volumes on the value attached to life of individuals.