It is widely believed that the mentally ill pose a very serious risk when it comes to being violent. Depictions in the media and various films have shown those with some form of mental illness showing a high propensity for violent acts when provoked. While there are mental ailments that can make the affected individuals lash out and harm others and their own selves, these instances are quite rare.  There is no definitive link between mental illness and violence.

There are severe cases in which those diagnosed with a mental illness can become quite violent in response to a stimulus that is considered to be threatening or otherwise unnerving. Too often it is seen in the media that the over-generalization of mental illness equates to those that are mentally ill or disturbed are prone to violent acts.  In truth there are conditions that, when experienced, can lead to violent acts, but are still not a definite precursor to violence. Schizophrenia, chronic depression and mania, and bipolar disorder have been seen to be the cause of violent acts (Arkowitz & Lilienfeld, 2011). There are usually triggers behind these acts however that precipitate the type of violence that is shown by the media.

Schizophrenia is a good example of how violence can be associated with mental illness. This particular malady is essentially seen as a break with reality, resulting in the separation of rationality between thoughts, emotions, and behavior. The affected individual will usually suffer a severe withdrawal from reality and even fail to see the difference between the real world and fantasy. As such their behaviors, speech, and actions might be construed as inappropriate and even antisocial by others.

In terms of becoming violent, schizophrenics are not only at higher risk to commit violent

acts, but they also experience an increased risk when it comes to being the victims of violent acts

(Hodges, 2008). The limits that this brain disorder can put upon the individual make it difficult if

not impossible for the affected person to function within society, making them far more likely to be passive or aggressive depending upon their reaction to their environment. Unfortunately the social stigma that labels schizophrenics as dangerous does nothing to help the issue. Instead the constant media exposure and public opinion tend to make matters worse as those that are diagnosed with this disorder are seen to be highly unpredictable and even dangerous.

The factors leading up to a violent act committed by a person with schizophrenia can include lack of sufficient social support, a history of substance abuse, and an exacerbation of symptoms that might otherwise be treatable. It has been seen that one of the biggest reasons for schizophrenia being considered a risk for aggressive acts is the failure to recognize and treat its symptoms (Pompili & Fiorillo, 2015). By ignoring the disorder those diagnosed with schizophrenia are placing themselves and others at risk thanks to their dissociation with reality. With proper treatment the risks that are inherent with the disorder can be treated, but never fully cured.

Another disorder that is prone to being linked with violence is bipolar disorder. This particular ailment is seen to occur as a result of trauma, depression, and even manic episodes. Much like schizophrenia it can cause a break with reality, creating a situation in which the individual that experiences these symptoms can become disoriented and quite unsure of their surroundings. Those that suffer from bipolar disorder will often feel high, euphoric moments during which they are exceptionally happy followed by an emotional crash that leaves them depressed and in some cases even suicidal. During these bouts it is typically seen that the individual is highly unstable and not fully aware of their surroundings or their circumstances.

Taking into consideration that bipolar disorder is often caused by some form of trauma

within the individual’s past it stands to reason that this trigger could be a tenuous link that could

precipitate a violent act.  Similar to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and the trauma that can lead to impulsive aggression due to the emergence of manic episodes (Lee, Galynker, Kopeykina, Kim, & Katun, 2014). Those that are diagnosed with this disorder are commonly seen as high risk when it comes to violent acts. The impulsive aggression they are seen to produce at times is typically in response to a perceived or real threat, forcing their minds to enact the appropriate reply to the situation.

One of the most distinctive symptoms of bipolar disorder, and one of the most dangerous, is that it can produce psychotic episodes. When left untreated, this condition can become extremely high risk for the individual and for others.  These psychotic episodes are known to occur only during manic and depressive states however, when the fight or flight response is strongest (. During these times it has been reported that individuals with bipolar disorder will typically experience hallucinations and even paranoid delusions that challenge their scope of reality. It is highly recommended that anyone experiencing such symptoms be taken immediately into treatment to avoid hurting themselves or anyone else.

One of the most negative aspects of mental illness is not the simple fact that individuals do in fact suffer from the symptoms, but that their conditions are often blown completely out of proportion.  Many films, television shows, commercials, and other forms of media have pushed a mythical look at mental instability that is simply not true.  While certain aspects of the mental illnesses that do exist have been portrayed accurately and with some respect, others have been depicted in a far more negative light so as to entertain the masses. It is important for the general public to realize that the depiction of such mental disorders as a stereotype is a negative experience for those suffering from such disorders and those that do not fully understand them.

Much like the effect that “Jaws” had upon the average tourist looking for a good time at

the local beach, movies such as “A Beautiful Mind” and “Michael Clayton” showcase their respective disorders and even go so far as to show the most negative aspects. They show that those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are often impulsive and hard to predict.  This tends to lead people to think that those with such disorders are insane, unhinged, and even dangerous thanks to their unpredictable nature. That in turn fuels the need to believe that those with such disorders can be unaccountably dangerous if left to their own devices.

When taken in historical context it is not difficult to take note of how differences in what is considered normal life can be construed as unnerving and even terrifying in some regards. With what is now known about the human mind and how it operates there is still widespread paranoia and stereotypical data that is spread concerning the mentally ill and much of this has to do with how they are portrayed. The shock value that is centered upon the worst case scenarios creates huge media buzz concerning mental disorders. Unfortunately this focuses largely on the problem and the most negative aspects without showing how, or even if, the disorders can be managed.

Violence is not the only possible outcome of mental disorders and the undue stress they can cause the individual and those around them.  There is a possibility that such ailments can be treated and kept under control.  While treatment is sometimes uncertain it is still an effort that is required to keep those with such disorders calm and reasonably safe from causing harm or being harmed.  Simply having schizophrenia or bipolar disorder places the individual at a high risk for violence, but it does not openly invite the possibility.

The many myths that stain the reputation of those with mental disorders are often used in

entertainment. Many viewers stare in rapt attention as they show the representation of such

mental disorders on the big screen or on the television while concrete ideas begin to formulate in

their minds concerning just how real what they are seeing might be. The average perception of those with mental disorders is that they do not tend to get better without serious intervention or even incarceration.  What many do not understand is that it is possible for those with such disorders to live reasonably normal lives.

Another myth that is easily refuted is that medication or intensive therapy is the only

available avenues for those afflicted with such disorders. In truth there is no one measure to be

taken by those that have one or more disorders. Their condition is not bound to disappear or even

get better if given a miracle pill or by being shipped to a therapist for treatment. There is more to such disorders than most people understand, as biology, environment, and genetics all have a part in what happens to the individual (Tartakovsky, 2017) .

Treatment does exist for individuals that are diagnosed with mental disorders. In the case of those that have gone untreated and committed violent acts the initial outcry from the public tends to lean towards incarceration and even harsher punishments.  While individuals that suffer from mental disorders do know right from wrong during their more lucid moments, this sense of reasoning tends to fade and even disappear during the manic episodes they experience.  Punishing an individual that is genuinely afflicted with a mental disorder is akin to punishing a child that has no real concept of what they are doing.  With treatment it is possible to quell and even reduce such manic episodes.

What type of treatment an individual receives is highly dependent upon their condition

and their attitude towards the treatment that is prescribed. Those that do not believe they have a

problem might require more convincing in order for the treatment to be effective. In some

extreme cases when the individual has in fact become violent a judge can issue a court order

compelling the individual to either enter treatment or face incarceration. This is a very touchy

subject, but it is typically made to insure the safety of the individual and those that the person might interact with.  Typically a mentally ill person convicted of a violent crime will either be hospitalized before being sentenced to prison.

Treatment will begin during the individual’s hospitalization, and can be administered in many different ways. Medication is among the first methods used to calm the individual and either stop or lessen their manic episodes. It must always be taken into consideration how medications will interact with the individual’s unique body chemistry and if they will be as effective as they need to be. Doctors must always take into account that different medications will not work the same way for each individual, which makes medication a viable option but not an overall solution. Unfortunately when one considers the biology and genetics aspect of mental disorders, medication becomes quite necessary.

Other options include therapy, support groups, and even in some cases relocation.  Environment has a great deal to do with the cause of manic episodes and depression that can lead to violence. It stands to reason that therapy, along with medication, exists as one of the best methods of treating mental disorders. By speaking to counselors, peers, and even family and friends that have been through such ordeals, the individual can come to understand how to best counter the symptoms of their disorders.

The common myth of mental disorders causing violent acts is one that has for many years been depicted as an epidemic that does exist, but is not as serious as the general public has been led to believe. Those with mental disorders are not violent as a rule.  Their unpredictability is due more to the environment in which they find themselves and the situations that can occur. Like anyone else however, a mentally ill individual does possess the fight or flight response. They are just as likely to avoid a conflict as they are to cause one, much like anyone else.


Arkowitz, H. & Lilienfeld, S.O. (2011). Deranged and Dangerous: When Do the Emotionally

Disturbed Resort to Violence? Scientific American. Retrieved from

Fast, J.A. (2015). Three Bipolar Disorder Symptoms No One Wants to Talk About. BP

Magazine. Retrieved from

Hodges, S. (2008). Violent behaviour among people with schizophrenia: a framework for

investigations of causes, and effective treatment, and prevention. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363, 2505-2518.

DOI:  10.1098/rstb.2008.0034

Lee, A.M.R. MD, et al. (2014). Violence in Bipolar Disorder. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved from

Pompili, M. MD, PhD & Fiorillo, A. MD, PhD. (2015). Aggression and Impulsivity in

Schizophrenia. Psychiatric Times. Retrieved from

Tartakovsky, M. MS (2017). Media’s Damaging Depiction of Mental Illness. PsychCentral.

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