If suspect Jared Lee Loughner has schizophrenia, would that make him more likely to go on a shooting spree…

The state of the universe.
Jan. 9 2011 12:52 AM

Crazy Talk

We're too quick to use "mental illness" as an explanation for violence.

See Slate's complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

Shortly after Jared Lee Loughner had been identified as the alleged shooter of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, online sleuths turned up pages of rambling text and videos he had created. A wave of amateur diagnoses soon followed, most of which concluded that Loughner was not so much a political extremist as a man suffering from "paranoid schizophrenia."

For many, the investigation will stop there. No need to explore personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger. The mere mention of mental illness is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don't expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.

Seena Fazel is an Oxford University psychiatrist who has led the most extensive scientific studies to date of the links between violence and two of the most serious psychiatric diagnoses—schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, either of which can lead to delusions, hallucinations, or some other loss of contact with reality. Rather than looking at individual cases, or even single studies, Fazel's team analyzed all the scientific findings they could find. As a result, they can say with confidence that psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone's propensity or motive for violence.

Advertisement

A 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. Two similar analyses on bipolar patients showed, along similar lines, that the risk of violent crime is fractionally increased by the illness, while it goes up substantially among those who are dependent on intoxicating substances. In other words, it's likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.

Of course, like the rest of the population, some people with mental illness do become violent, and some may be riskier when they're experiencing delusions and hallucinations. But these infrequent cases do not make "schizophrenia" or "bipolar" a helpful general-purpose explanation for criminal behavior. If that doesn't make sense to you, here's an analogy: Soccer hooligans are much more likely to be violent when they attend a match, but if you tell me that your friend has gone to a soccer match, I'll know nothing about how violent a person he is. Similarly, if you tell me your friend punched someone, the fact that he goes to soccer matches tells me nothing about what caused the confrontation. This puts recent speculation about the Arizona suspect in a distinctly different light: If you found evidence on the Web that Jared Lee Loughner or some other suspected killer was obsessed with soccer or football or hockey and suggested it might be an explanation for his crime, you'd be laughed at. But do the same with "schizophrenia" and people nod in solemn agreement. This is despite the fact that your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent study of four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million. To put it in perspective, statistics show you are about three times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike.

The fact that mental illness is so often used to explain violent acts despite the evidence to the contrary almost certainly flows from how such cases are handled in the media. Numerous studies show that crimes by people with psychiatric problems are over-reported, usually with gross inaccuracies that give a false impression of risk. With this constant misrepresentation, it's not surprising that the public sees mental illness as an easy explanation for heartbreaking events. We haven't yet learned all the details of the tragic shooting in Arizona, but I suspect mental illness will be falsely accused many times over.

Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.