The fictitious relationship between mental illness and crime

January 23, 2023

When crime is portrayed in the media, whether in fictional television shows or national news, mental health is often tied with the motivations behind the individual committing the crime.

Were they depressed? Have bipolar disorder? Schizophrenia?

But how much of crime is actually caused by the individual’s mental health?

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As it turns out, hardly any.

Dr. Robert “Bob” Morgan, the dean of the College of Health and Human Services at SIU, has researched treatment at the interface of mental health and criminal risk in justice-related issues as well as maintained a private practice for more than 20 years in forensic psychology before coming to SIU, and he says this is a major but common misconception in our society.

Among the people who experience mental health issues and illness, only a small percentage will ever commit a crime, and among individuals who do commit crime, only three to five percent are due to serious mental health issues according to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

“Now, certainly we know that persons with mental illness are over represented in criminal justice systems, jails, prisons, probation, parole, but it’s not because mental health is a predictor or cause of crime,” Morgan said.

Dr. Tamara Kang, a professor at SIU who researched mental health in the justice system and the criminogenic needs or factors that are predictive of reoffending of individuals who commit crime, says that the things that influence people who commit crime are the same things that influence people who are not involved in crime.

“One is family, another is peers, school and employment, your available leisure activities,” Kang said. “The one that doesn’t apply to everybody broadly, but it is a robust empirical predictor of recidivism is substance abuse, and then you have different things like personality characteristics or antisocial cognitions, and so sometimes this is things like criminal thinking, where you feel that you would fix or solve problems by committing crimes.”

A main focus of treating individuals in the justice system is to help change the people justice-involved individuals spend time with. The more a person spends time with other people that are engaged in criminal activity, the more likely they will commit a crime.

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“When I’m doing trainings, I always give the example…For parents, if you want to know what your kid is doing, look at who they’re hanging out with,” Morgan said. “If your kid’s hanging out with the chess team, what are they doing with it? Probably do academic stuff. But if your kid is hanging out with the fringe group who’s involved in some antisocial activities and maybe running afoul of certain school rules, but possibly even the law, what’s your kid doing? Well, the same thing, probably.”

One way researchers have proven that mental health is not a factor in these criminogenic needs is by how individuals in the justice system have been treated in the past to re-enter the community.

“Historically, we would simply treat your mental health problems and expect that they would have less crime, not return to prison or jail, and we’ll be fine,” Morgan said. “And what we’ve found is, well, that doesn’t work.”

What the researchers are looking for is something called recidivism, or the likelihood of a justice-involved individual to reoffend, and what they have found is that treating mental health in isolation leaves out the treatment of a person’s criminogenic needs, making them susceptible to reoffending.

“If you have a specialized probation load, where you’re mandating someone to seek mental health treatment as part of their probation or parole requirements, but you’re not treating these criminogenic needs from the need principle, you wouldn’t actually reduce recidivism,” Kang said.

Some studies have found that individuals who have a specialized caseload can even have a higher likelihood of reoffending.

“But this is mostly because if you keep a closer eye on people, and you make them have more probation, mandated things they have to do, they’re more likely to get caught or fail, or somehow have a violation of probation and go back to court,” Kang said.

Today, instead of isolating mental health as part of the treatment for a crime, individuals in the justice system focus on addressing the criminogenic needs of the individual.

“We help them focus on associating with people that are law abiding,” Morgan said. “They’re pro-social, they’re responsible and they’re not engaged in crime.”

This doesn’t mean mental health is left out of the system. While it has been established that mental health is rarely ever the cause of crime, it can still expose individuals to situations to have criminogenic needs.

“If you have someone with a mental illness and they’re also abusing substances, it’s not the mental illness that would actually cause a crime, but those that are abusing substances in order to get money might commit property crimes or things like that to fuel their lifestyle or their habits,” Kang said.

Kang describes this as an indirect relationship, where mental illness may not be what causes the crime itself, but it doesn’t create problems that interact with the criminogenic needs that can cause harm and crime.

“It does complicate our ability to target other things like employment, like if you’re having a hard time going to work because you’re depressed or if you’re having a hard time concentrating during interventions or developing risk management plans because you’re dealing with hallucinations or anxiety,” Kang said.

Mental health also impacts justice-involved individuals who may not have been suffering from mental health issues before being incarcerated. Incarceration can be incredibly stressful for a justice-involved individual. They lose their jobs, their friends and family, and they are often treated as an inmate and not a person with feelings and emotions. The transition can be a major cause of depression or anxiety.

“If you have people that don’t even see you as a person but see you as an inmate, you can really, a lot of the research has found, they feel doomed to be deviant, meaning ‘why should I even try,’” Kang said.

Persons involved in the justice system feel the same helplessness as they re-enter the community as well.

“Once you’re released, you have nothing. Think about not having a bank account, not having a driver’s license, you’re barely given any money… Think of how overwhelming that must be to have nothing,” Kang said. “Also, you don’t have much money so you’re forced to live in low-income housing, where you’re definitely not associating all the time with people that are making great decisions. I think people really misunderstand how difficult that can be and that type of stress can wear on you… a lot of people that deal with struggles do develop mental health symptoms or they do even develop a mental illness.”

The relationship between mental health and crime is complicated, but Kang makes it clear that it’s alright to feel confused.

“The field is often pretty harsh to the public about beliefs that maybe do not necessarily agree with what the research has found,” Kang said. “And I do want to say that it makes a lot of sense and I think it’s important for people that read things in the newspaper to understand that researchers don’t do a good job of disseminating knowledge… So a lot of the misunderstandings that come from the relationship between mental illness and crime has nothing to do so much with the public, but it does have something to do with community outreach and things that researchers can do.”

Ultimately, the research has shown that while mental illness may play a role in creating opportunities for more types of criminogenic needs, there are a very small percentage of crimes that are committed because of an individual’s mental illness.

“It’s complicated, it’s easy to misunderstand and really,” Kang said, “if someone believes that mental illness is causal of crime, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid or ignorant… it’s a very easy thing to sort of feel that that’s the connection.”

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