Mental illness and violence…What does the data say?

Photo credit: New York Times

When incidents such as yesterday’s school shooting in Florida occur, I’m sick and tired of the immediate calls for more gun control as well as the insinuation that mental illness is to blame. When we perpetuate the idea that mental illness is a root cause of the violence in schools we do children and adults with mental illness and their families a disservice.

It feels like our society is looking for a quick and easy solution that allows us to maintain our denial of the root cause of the violence that has visited our schools with alarming frequency.

As church leaders, we have a responsibility to speak with integrity regarding what she know to be true from the available research.

I was asked by one of our local Christian stations to come on the air specifically to discuss the relationship between mental illness and violence. I did a literature search to examine the research on the topic, and put together some key takeaway points based upon my findings…

  • The available research suggests that persons with mental illness are two to three times more likely to exhibit violent behavior than those without mental illness, but the vast majority (93-98%) never become violent.
  • In one large study, 2.9% of persons with serious mental illness alone committed violent acts in a year, compared with 0.8% of people with no mental disorders or substance abuse. Persons with cooccurring substance use disorder and serious mental illness had a higher rate of violence (10.0%)
  • Mental illness and violence are related primarily through the accumulation of multiple risk factors – historical (past violence, juvenile detention, physical abuse, parental arrest record), clinical (substance abuse, perceived threats), dispositional (young, male) and contextual (recent divorce, unemployment, victimization) among the mentally ill.
  • One large study of adult psychiatric outpatients with serious mental illness being served in the public mental health system without a history of violent victimization or exposure to neighborhood violence who were not abusing drugs or alcohol, had annual rates of violent behavior similar to the general population without mental illness – about 2%.
  • Mental illness is strongly associated not with an increased risk of homicide, but with an increased risk of suicide. Each year approximately 32,000 people in the U.S. are killed with guns-about 19,000 of them by their own hand.
  • A huge disconnect exists between public perception and reality regarding the risk of violent behavior related to mental illness. A 2013 national public opinion survey found that 46% of Americans believed that persons with serious mental illness were “far more dangerous than the general population.”
  • Psychiatrists lack the ability to accurately predict which of their patients will become violent. One study examining psychiatrists’ predictions of violence based on clinical assessments performed in emergency rooms demonstrated they were only slightly more accurate than flipping a coin and no better than chance in predicting violence in female patients. In order to prevent one stranger homicide, 35,000 patients with schizophrenia judged to be at high risk of violence would need to be detained.

The bottom line…If we could eradicate all mental illness, we would reduce acts of violence by approximately 4%. 96% of the violence that currently occurs in the general population would continue to occur.

If you’re interested in reading further on the topic of mental illness and violence, the two best review articles I found were this paper from Dr. Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University and a more concise review published in 2016 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.


Interested in being part of a book study led by Dr. Grcevich on  Mental Health and the Church:  A Ministry Handbook for Including Children and Adults with ADHD, Anxiety, Mood Disorders, and Other Common Mental Health Conditions?

Beginning February 20th, he’ll be posting daily discussion questions, sharing interesting links and resources and, from time to time, interactive video chats. To join this free (but closed) Facebook group, type “Mental Health and the Church Study Group” in your Facebook search box, ask to join the group and answer the two questions about why you want to join.

Mental Health and the Church is available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ChristianBook and other fine retailers everywhere.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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3 Responses to Mental illness and violence…What does the data say?

  1. Heath, Carol says:

    I completely get your argument that mental illness should not be automatically blamed after every shooting.

    What I do not understand was your one sentence that said you are “sick and tired of immediate calls for gun control” and then that was all you said about that.

    So you think the sales of semi-automatic weapons, which have no purpose other than killing a lot of people quickly. They are not for hunting deer. They are not for defending yourself from an intruder. Their only purpose is to KILL PEOPLE. The statistics are so clear, in the countries that have put greater gun controls in place have drastically reduced or even eliminated mass shootings.

    Why are you sick and tired of trying to reduce mass shootings?

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. refinersfire43 says:

    I have grieved for this young man. He was an orphan adopted by an elderly couple who are now gone. I have not heard anything about that family life. This young man needed people to surround him with love – not just to be expelled. Did the school try to connect him with any type of group who could have provided a loving support, who would have been willing to walk through life with him?

    Every one of us is to blame if we are not willing to sacrifice some of our own time with such hurting children to walk through life with them.
    As Christians we must be praying and asking God, “Do you want me to do something, to sacrifice my time, my money to pour into the life of a hurting child? Father show me what the child, You put in my life, needs.”

    Some are called to be hands on, others are called to give financially. I urge both to go to a level of sacrifice.

    I heard this quote in a sermon this past week:
    “What we do with the cross determines where we will spend eternity. The way we live as believers determines how we will spend eternity.” Based on Hebrews 6

    My husband is slowly dying a painful death – it puts a whole new light on eternity.

    One last thought – having been a Children’s Director for many years the adults in our churches don’t care about the children in our own churches, no wonder we don’t care about other children. This coming week every Bible believing church in America should have a waiting list of people wanting to serve in children’s ministry.

    Liked by 1 person

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