Principles: The Stigma of Mental Health and Violence
Principles: The Stigma of Mental Health and Violence
Individuals with mental health disabilities often face stigma and bias because of the false assumption that people with mental health disabilities are dangerous or violent. In fact, millions of adults in the United States have mental health disabilities and live successful, productive lives. Moreover, individuals with mental health disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. Nevertheless, misconceptions about mental health and violence cause individuals living with mental health conditions to face significant discrimination in housing, employment, social situations, and basic civil rights protections.
The false perception about the link between mental health and violence carries serious consequences. The federal New Freedom Commission on Mental Health found that, “Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders—especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness…Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment.”1
Many Americans erroneously believe that people with mental health disabilities pose a threat of violence, a perception that has nearly doubled in the past half-decade.
The media perpetuates these negative stereotypes through selective reporting that portrays people with mental health disabilities as dangerous and unpredictable. On screen and in print, the media sensationalizes stories of mass shootings and gun violence that involve individuals with perceived mental health disabilities and fails to report on violence attributable to other factors, such as gang violence and domestic violence. Rarely does the media highlight positive stories of individuals’ recovery or the numerous contributions that people living with mental health conditions make to society. The media’s skewed reporting reinforces the public’s stereotypes linking violence and mental health disabilities.
In reality, the vast majority of people with mental health conditions are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Studies indicate that mental illness is attributable to only a small amount—approximately four percent—of violence to others in the United States. This represents: (1) a small percentage of people who are violent, and (2) a small percentage of people living with mental health disabilities, given some estimates that as many as one-half of all Americans report having a disabling mental health condition at least once in their lifetime.2 Accordingly, “[m]ental illness is … a weak predictor of violent behavior.”3 The prevalence of mental health disabilities across the world (in countries where data is gathered) varies somewhat, with the United States being slightly higher. However, the general prevalence of gun violence in the United States, including gang and domestic violence, is much greater than similar industrialized nations.
In fact, many people with mental health conditions are highly active and productive members of our communities. They are our family members and friends, co-workers and colleagues. They live independently, work in jobs, and actively and positively contribute to society and the United States economy.
Moreover, people living with mental health disabilities are actually more likely to be the victims of violence. People with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or psychosis, are 2.5 times more likely to be attacked, mugged, or raped than the general population.4 Stigma of mental illness is compounded with societal stigma and prejudice waged towards minority groups. People with mental health disabilities in Black, Latino, Native American, Asian Pacific Islander, immigrant, and/or LGBTQIA2S+ communities are victims of violence in much higher rates.
Disability Rights California (DRC) is committed to the elimination of stigma and bias against individuals with disabilities including stigma and discrimination stemming from the false link between mental health disabilities and violence. In furtherance of this principle, DRC will oppose legislation that:
- Attributes violence to individuals with mental health disabilities.
- Does not consider other indicators of violence such as substance use, youth (people in their teens and early twenties), and a criminal history, as they have stronger associations with violent acts.
- Attempts to predict whether a specific individual poses an increased risk of violence, since it is difficult to do so.
- Attributes gun violence to mental health disability.
- Perpetuates misconceptions about violence and mental health disability because such misconceptions increase stigma against people with mental health disabilities. It is stigmatizing to equate every mass shooting with a mental health disability. Very few people with mental health disabilities are violent.
- Imposes firearm restrictions based on disability status rather than findings of violence and dangerous behavior.
2Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O, Jin R, Merikangas KR, Walters EE (June 2005). "Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication". Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 62 (6): 593–602. – (Return to main document)
3NASMHPD Toolkit at p.82 (“[m]ental illness is only a weak predictor of violent behavior”). – (Return to main document)
4Hiday, V.A., Swartz, M.S., Swanson, J.W., et al. (1999). Criminal victimization of persons with severe mental health disabilities. Psychiatric Services, 50, 62-68. – (Return to main document)