Are people who suffer from mental illnesses more likely to commit violent crimes? The Los Angeles Times says that question has been on the nation's mind since a 22-year-old college dropout with a history of odd behavior was charged with shooting 19 people in Tucson. The answer may seem obvious to the public, given the popularity of movies, TV shows, and books portraying mentally unbalanced people as homicidal maniacs. Three-quarters of Americans view mentally ill people as dangerous, said a 1999 study in the American Journal of Public Health. Another 1999 study found that 60 percent of Americans believed patients with schizophrenia were likely to commit violent acts.
Data show that people with certain psychiatric problems do commit violent crimes at a higher rate than those who are seemingly healthy, the vast majority of homicides, arsons and assaults are perpetrated by people who are not considered severely mentally ill. Other factors, such as unemployment, divorce in the last year and a history of physical abuse, are better predictors of violent behavior than a diagnosis of schizophrenia, according to a 2009 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry. “If a person has severe mental illness without substance abuse and history of violence, he or she has the same chances of being violent during the next three years as any other person in the general population,” the study found.