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Violently ill?

Science | It’s a mistake to presume mental disorders and violence go hand-in-hand

Issue: "Roe v. Wade turns 40," Jan. 26, 2013

In the gun control debate sparked by last month’s shooting in Newtown, Conn., some pundits have called for greater efforts to keep guns from the mentally ill. National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre even suggested the United States needed “an active national database of the mentally ill.”

But is a mentally ill person more likely than average to be violent? Not by much, studies indicate. Paul Appelbaum, former president of the American Psychiatric Association, has cited research suggesting only 3-5 percent of violence in the United States involves people with serious mental illnesses.

In a 2009 study, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found mental illness by itself didn’t accurately predict whether people would commit violence. Only when other factors—like having a history of violence or abusing drugs and alcohol—were added to mental illness did the likelihood of violence significantly increase. Drug or alcohol abuse alone is much more likely to trigger violence than a mental disorder.

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“I know that if I ever was involved in a violent crime, the media would refer to my history of mental illness, the fact that I was under the care of a psychiatrist and that I lived alone,” writes David L. Levine, a science journalist diagnosed with “panic disorder,” on a guest blog at Scientific American’s website.

At the age of 19 Levine began experiencing panic attacks that set him shaking and feeling an irrational sense of impending doom. He had no desire to pick up a gun and shoot anyone: “When I had a panic attack, I thought I was dying. I wanted to be brought to a hospital. The furthest thing from my mind was being violent.”

Some research does suggest people with serious disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely to commit a violent crime, but most never do. And it’s impossible to predict those who will.

“Psychiatrists, using clinical judgment, are not much better than chance at predicting which individual patients will do something violent and which will not,” Jeffrey Swanson, a psychiatry professor at Duke University, told The New York Times.

It’s usually a mistake, then, to view the mentally disturbed with fear rather than compassion. We can show compassion by providing treatment and counseling to those disabled by mental problems. (America faces a severe shortage of psychiatric beds, experts say.) In individual cases we can watch for warning signs, though. Researchers say mass killers often fantasize about a massacre long before committing it, and drop hints of brooding rage or nurtured grudges in conversations or online forums. No surprise: Murder, as Jesus taught, springs from the heart.

Popular rock

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The use of coal for electric generation is declining in the United States, thanks to tough federal air pollution law and the availability of cheap natural gas. In every other region of the world, coal is surging: At current rates, coal will overtake oil as the world’s top energy source within a decade, according to a report by the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

Global coal demand grew 4 percent in 2011, the report noted, with most of the increase driven by China, the world’s top consumer. India is on track to supplant the United States as the second largest coal consumer by 2017, when global demand will reach about 6 billion tons. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


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