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In What Sense, If Any, Should Mental Illness Be Considered A Cause Of Crime?

1485 words - 6 pages

Frequent surveys of the subject of mental illness and crime appear to show a strong link between mental illness/abnormality and criminality. However, crime is neither a mental disorder nor is it necessarily evidence of such a disorder. The concept of crime and of mental illness should be kept separate and distinct. Crime is a violation of the criminal law, whereas mental illness refers to behaviour that is often marked by some defect of reason that interferes with an individual’s ability to test reality, and which is usually associtaed with stress, disability and an increased risk of suffering. While it is true that some crime can undoubtedly be explained by mental illness, to consider all ...view middle of the document...

Therefore it is important to remember that it might not have been the mental illness that triggered the crime at all. When considered together, these three observations greatly complicate the question of what connection exists between mental illness and crime in relation to causation and make it very difficult for a precise answer to be found.

The criminal behaviour of persons suffering from a mental illness is difficult to estimate with precision due to the difficulty in obtaining reliable data with which to examine the link. Many studies have been carried out to attempt to discover the extent of any link which might exist between criminality and mental illness. Many of these studies involved surveying a prison population and calculating the proportion of prisoners who were suffering from a mental illness. Teplin (1990) has observed that recent surveys of prison populations have concluded that the rate of mental illness in prison populations is, at its most conservative estimate, two to three times higher than the comparable rates in the normal population. However, one cannot conclude that this finding proves a causal link between mental illness and criminality because it is impossible to determine whether the mental illness existed at the time that the crime was committed. Imprisonment itself might cause the mental illness and in such a case there would be no causal link between mental illness and crime but rather the mental illness would be a consequence of imprisonment. On the basis of these observations it is easy to see that in order to prove a causative link much more evidence would be required. An alternative, and possibly better, approach might be to study the behaviour of psychiatric patients and thus attempt to understand the affect that psychiatric disorders have on behaviour. One such study was conducted by Rollin (1969) and concluded that the results pointed to some correlation between criminality and mental illness. However, whilst the figures in the study show that crime and mental illness often occur together, they do not prove a causative link between the two. The fact that a mentally ill person commits a crime does not mean that the act was caused by the illness as the illness might affect a part of the individual’s personality that has nothing to do with the specific crime in the case. It cannot be said with any certainty that crime is caused by mental disorders as even where an offender suffers from a mental disorder it might not be the illness that triggers the crime.

As can be seen the precise relationship between mental illness and criminality is uncertain but it certainly cannot be said that there is any form of simple link between them. In some very severe cases the mental illness may directly cause the crime but such instances are extremely rare and Julien (2001) has claimed that less than 5% of individuals convicted of a crime are suffering from a mental illness. In other cases there may also be an indirect link...

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