Are Violent Crimes Up with Mental Illness on the Rise?

Are violent crimes related to mental illness

What are the real mental illness and violence facts you need to know? Find out what the relationship is between the rise in violent crime and mental health.

Nearly one in five Americans (52.9 million) has some kind of mental illness. The vast majority of people with such a disorder live peacefully and generally don’t come to the attention of law enforcement. However, statistics on mental illness and violence indicate that certain conditions contribute to criminal behavior. Crime rates in the United States jumped nearly 29% from 2019 to 2020 and have continued to rise. This follows a decades-long decline in crimes of all kinds, with an especially marked decline in rates of violent crime.

Unfortunately, the cultural perception of mental illness has exaggerated the influence of psychiatric disorders on violence and the prevalence of mental health issues among violent criminals. It does not help that a relatively large portion of people currently incarcerated have some kind of mental illness.

The American Psychological Association found in a study that 64% of jail inmates, 54% of state prison inmates and 45% of federally incarcerated prisoners have a mental health concern or diagnosed mental illness. These mental health and violence statistics seem to paint a picture of the mentally ill as being dangerous, which ironically makes people less likely to seek care and potentially more likely to have a serious bout with their condition.

Mental Illness and Violence Facts

The first thing to know about mental illness and violence statistics is that people who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. There is a large portion of people in legal custody with a mental health issue. This is a combination of people whose latent mental health issues have been exacerbated by the isolating effects of jail, and by the high number of nonviolent offenders who wound up in custody because they had no other housing or care options available to them.

County jails, for example, have by far the highest proportion of inmates with mental health issues (64%), which is broadly reflective of the practice of arresting a person with mental illness for a nonviolent misdemeanor, such as vagrancy, and housing them in the jail until their case is dismissed or resolved.

An Epidemic of Diagnosis

Another issue is the dramatic rise in the diagnosis of mental illness, rather than the violence of people who get those diagnoses. For several years, many county and state authorities have made efforts to more accurately diagnose the mental health, emotional health and substance abuse issues of incarcerated people. To an observer, the upswing in numbers could look like a wave of mentally ill criminals washing over America’s correctional facilities. In fact, it is significantly more likely now that a person who arrives at a prison or jail with an unmet mental health issue will be correctly diagnosed and receive at least some treatment during their confinement.

Mental health diagnoses are on the rise outside of the criminal justice system as well. Since 2017, there has been a 13% rise in the prevalence of mental health disorders in developed countries. The World Health Organization links this largely to what it calls demographic changes, mainly to an aging population and the rise of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of age-related dementia. It should be obvious that an age-related increase in cognitive impairments among older adults in first world countries is not likely to be the culprit in a rise in violent crime.

Does Mental Illness Cause Violence?

Mental illness is still a factor in some violent crimes. Clinically, the mental health disorders most commonly associated with violent episodes are schizophrenia, mania (including bipolar disorder), organic brain syndrome, alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders and certain types of seizure disorders. In rare cases, the symptoms of the mental illness might be directly connected to the performance of the crime, such as a person with schizophrenia acting out a paranoid delusion during an episode and threatens or hurts another person. In some cases, the offense is recorded as a violent crime when it was actually a failed suicide attempt, such as when a person with bipolar disorder tries to drive into an obstacle and hits a pedestrian they didn’t see. It can be exceedingly difficult to separate all of the complex details of individual criminal charges from the clinical diagnoses of individual patients with a variety of mental health conditions.

Why Are Violent Crimes Up?

Sociologists, criminologists and economists are still debating the causes of the 1990-2019 drop in crime, with explanations offered that include:

  • Enhanced and more innovative police work
  • Improving economic conditions
  • Declining economic conditions
  • An aging population
  • Changes in geographic population distribution, cultural factors and other hard-to-quantify X-factors
  • The national legalization of abortion in 1973 causing broad changes in demography

Every one of these potential factors has valid evidence, and most have at least some argument behind them. In all likelihood, most or all of the factors work together in a complex way to generate large-scale trends in the crime rates that play out over decades.

Sometimes a trend comes on suddenly and dramatically, and in a way too obvious to ignore. Starting in 2020, both violent crime rates and mental health diagnoses rose dramatically from the year before. Several much-publicized issues were likely at work on both of these trends, from a summer full of riots to the stress and isolation of lockdowns, a global pandemic and a very contentious national election season. In all likelihood, both the 2020 rise in mental illness diagnoses and the spike in violent crime were the symptoms of deeper issues, many of which were out of the control of any single institution or social factor.

What Can Be Done?

No matter what factors are causing which problems, it is a fact that both mental illness and violent crime are heading in the wrong direction and have been since 2020. While no easy answer exists for addressing the higher violent crime rates, people who may have a mental illness can get help 24/7 by reaching out to Restore. Call us today at (877) 594-3566 to speak with a compassionate team of mental health professionals who can help you get started on the road to recovery.