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Relationship between Mental Illness and Crime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3279 words Published: 7th Jun 2021

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Over the recent years, there has been an increased incidence of crime and violence. This has become a major social problem in this 21st century. It is estimated that in the UK there has been 2,087,000 incidences of violence against adults between the year 2009-2010 (Home Office, 2010). In respect to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, violence has become a major public health problem (WHO, 2002). The WHO gives the definition of violence as: The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation (WHO, 2007).

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 Amongst all cases recorded by the department of justice, violence and especially gun violence forms the largest proportion of crime (Sherman, 2001). It is not clear why some people behave violently towards other people and why the incidences of violence and crime are high amongst other communities as compared to others. This is a complex topic that psychiatrists and psychologists have tried to understand. But from various studies, it is quite evident that this type of behaviour cannot be explained as being caused by a single factor. It involves the interaction between the environment, social factors, biological factors and cultural factors.

 When we look at various studies done by different scholars, media reports and clinical practice, violent crimes have been clearly attributed to two major factors, i.e. mental illness and personality disorders (Short et al, 2012). People with these conditions are at increased risk of getting involved in crime as compared to the general population. Therefore, questions arise; are these people to be considered as a threat to public safety? Is there a scientifically proven link between crime with personality disorders or mental illness?

 Therefore, this paper will focus on the relationship between mental illness and crime. I will seek to analyse the evidence available to prove or disapprove such relationship and try to analyse one case study of recent gun violence and analyse if there were any mental health issues that would have prompted the perpetrator to act in the manner he/ she acted. I will conclude the paper by giving a summary of my findings from the analysis I did.

Causes of mental illness that can lead one to a criminal behaviour.

Not a single factor has been shown to cause mental illness in isolation. It has been found that mental illness is caused by a combination of several factors that interact with each other in a complex way for mental illness to occur. These factors can be categorized as biological factors, psychological factors, social factors and familial factors. This discussion will focus on how these factors make a person at an increased risk of criminal behaviour.

  1. Biological factors

Our behaviour and human life are controlled by our genes. Therefore, using this explanation, it can be shown that some people ‘are born with mental health problems and criminals’. It just needs a bit of trigger for this kind of behaviour to manifest. This theory was initially advance by an Italian psychiatrist in the 19th century who was working with prisoners. He was known as Cesare Lombroso. According to him criminals had a maldeveloped/ insufficiently developed brains (Lombroso, 2006). He did his study among prisoners and found that they shared some physical characteristics such as a sloping forehead and receding chins. This made him conclude that criminals were born that way hence being involved in crime was as a result of a person’s biology and biological characteristics. Hence the theory was known as the theory of positivism (Lombroso, 2006).

This theory has however been overshadowed by extensive research by various psychologists. The biological causes of mental illness and crime have been attributes to a person’s genetic makeup, changes in the neurophysiological conditions of the brain and biochemical imbalances such as hormonal imbalances.

a)      Genetic influence and crime: various studies have shown that our genetic makeup can predispose us to mental illness or crime. It is believed that criminals inherit certain genes from their parents that predispose then to crime. This has been demonstrated by twin studies whereby a twin is more likely to be involved in criminality when the other twin is a criminal or has been prisoned as compared to the general population, adoption studies which explains that an adopted child whose parents were criminals is more likely to be involved in a criminal behaviour even without having close relationship with the parents. This led to the conclusion that criminality is linked to a person’s genetic makeup.

b)     Biochemical imbalance. Hormonal imbalance has been associated with increased risk of aggressiveness hence criminal behaviour. For example, criminal activity in males have been associated with abnormally high levels of the hormone testosterone which normally control secondary sexual characteristics and has been linked to aggression. Various studies among prisoners has shown that those involved in violent crimes have very high levels of testosterone (McDermott, 2007). This also explains why the violent crimes are higher among men of the age of 28 since at this time, the level of testosterone is twice that of the men between the age of 31-66 years (McDermott, 2007).

c)      Neurophysiological imbalance: abnormality in the neurotransmitters in the brain has been attributed to various criminal activities. It has been shown that excessive elevation of epinephrine, serotonin and norepinephrine has been associated with certain psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and illusions. These make people misinterpret sensory stimuli and make them more likely to commit crime. For example, a person having auditory hallucinations that someone is trying to kill him/her might get the impulsivity to kill that person before he’s dead hence a criminality.

  1. Psychological factors

Various psychologists have tried exploring the effect of a person’s psychology and their predisposition to crime. They propose that crime comes as a result of unresolved conflicts in the mind. These unresolved conflicts make a person be under a given pressure that can lead them to commit crime.

The role of intelligence has also been explored. It has been found that those with a low IQ are more likely to commit crime. Goddard who was the first proponent of this theory suggested that low intelligence made criminals lack the ability to learn the socially acceptable norms and conduct and resist offending behaviour (Goddard, 1914). Another study conducted by Zeleny (1933) gave a postulation that criminals are more likely to have low scores on IQ test as compared to non-criminals. These studies suggest that the likelihood of being a criminal is related to inability to follow rules.

In addition to intelligence, certain personality traits have been associated with increased risk of being a criminal. Impulsivity has been implicated as one of the factors. Being impulsive implies that one is more likely to act immediately according to his/her instincts without thinking of the consequences. Poor self-control has been implicated to result in criminal behaviour.

  1. Familial factors

Various familial factors such as poverty, polygamous family, family history of criminal behaviour and poor upbringing have been associated with increased risk of criminal behaviour. It has been shown that in those families that one of the parents is a alcoholic, the children are twice at risk of engaging in crime. This has been explained by the fact that the parents have no time with their children to teach their children the socially acceptable norms. Those born outside wedlock or in families with marital feuds are more likely to engage in criminality as compared to those born in stable and supportive families.

  1. Social factors

Sociologists suggest that criminal activity is caused by factors that are external to the individual. These factors include social class, peer influence, drug and substance abuse, their experience in the neighbourhood. Sociologists Shaw and Henry D. McKay (1942)  tried to do mapping of places where juvenile detainees live. These areas were characterized by poor housing, low socioeconomic status and poor health conditions with ever changing population dynamics. This led them to a conclusion that crime is influenced by the dynamics of the population and not individual’s dynamics especially in areas invaded by immigrants.

Jock Young in his book The Exclusive Society (1999) argues that increased disparity between the poor and the rich has led to isolation of disadvantaged groups. This makes the poor feel frustrated and resolve to violence in order to get whatever they want especially money and food.

Case analysis: Jared Lougher, Tucson, Arizona, 2011 mass shooting event.

Jared Lougher is an American born in September 10, 1988. He was a resident of Tucson, Arizona and stayed with his parents. He was the only child of Amy and Randy whose family was considered as a very private family (Abcarian et al, 2011). He was the perpetrator of a mass shooting that killed approximately 6 people and injured a total of 13 people including a congress representative Gabrielle Giffords (NYTimes, 2011). Before the shooting event, Jared had shown a change in behaviour that was noted with various people.

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To begin with, the students and faculty members at the community college that Jared attended noted that Jared acted extremely odd including laughing by himself, talking in loud voices while in the library, making offending and unrelated comments while in class. These concerns were raised by the class teachers, administrators and his fellow students. One of the instructors even raised a concern that she feared that Jared would become extremely aggressive after an argument about his grade (Abcarian & Hennessy, 2011). He kept on referring the whole education system as a fraud and when he was requested to watch on his behaviour, he kept on saying that his freedom of speech was being curtailed. He was later suspended from the college following a disturbing video that he posted on his you tube channel calling the school ‘a home of genocide.’ He was give a condition that before he is readmitted to the college, he has to get an approval from a psychiatrist (Abcarian & Hennessy, 2011).

Secondly, Jared worked in several institutions including restaurants and stores where he kept on skipping from job to job. At one time he stated that he was suffering from a nervous breakdown. He even tried to join the military where he was rejected after admitting that he was a regular marijuana user (Abcarian & Hennessy, 2011). This left him so disappointed. He later tried to submit various job applications before the shooting incidence of which he was always unsuccessful.

He also brushed shoulders with the law enforcement agencies on three occasions following drunken driving, possession of drugs, and vandalism. On all occasions Jared seemed to be extremely odd that made the police doubt his well-being.

Online, he also posted bizarre videos and disturbing messages. He once created a video concerning on how he would create his own currency and showing his lack of trust to the then government. These posts later became very disorganized and some even passed violent messages. His online friends voiced complaints with even one suggesting that he sees a mental health specialist (Abcarian & Hennessy, 2011).

The above examples indicate that before Loughner committed the crime, he was having some mental illness including experiencing persecutory hallucinations. His odd behaviour was a concern to everyone he interacted with including the parents, the school community, the neighbours back at home, his online friends and even the law enforcement agencies such as the police. Almost everyone he interacted with had the feeling that he wasn’t okay mentally and he was to seek from a mental health specialist. All these mental issues seemed to have not been handled adequately including one of the counsellors in the school failing to take action since the school policy required that for any person to be treated of a mental health issue he/she has to seek that help as their own initiative.

What was Loughner’s motive and did he achieve it?

Jared loughner’s motive behind the shooting was to kill the congress representative Gabrielle Gifford. In his view, the congress representative had failed to prevent what was in his view a conspiracy that the government was trying to cover. She was part and parcel of what he referred to as a fraudulent government that didn’t take care of the citizen’s issues. After the shooting, detectives did a search in his house and found words written on a letter sent by Rep. Giffords thanking him for attending the 2007 “Congress on Your Corner Event”. The words were, “Die Cops” and “Die Bitch” which the investigators figured out that they referred to the congress representative (Colberg, 2011). The investigators also found an envelope in a safe that contained some two shell casings. On the envelope he wrote the following words, “I planned ahead,” “My assassination,” and “Giffords” (Colberg, 2011). This note was dated December 6, 2010. This implies that he had planned to kill Giffords and also kill himself.

He however never succeeded in his mission on killing Rep. Giffords. The congress representative escaped with major injuries. He was even upset during the trial that Giffords was still alive. On further probing, he stated that by the fact that Giffords was still alive, it means that he would become a failure (Abcarian & Hennessy, 2011). There was however a total of 6 people killed and other 13 people injured during the shooting event. He was then diagnosed of Paranoid Schizophrenia and was forcibly treated for him to be fit to stand trial.

What was the police response? Was it adequate?

When the shooting began, people began running in different directions as others called 9-1-1 for an emergency response. The attack lasted about 15 seconds and only stopped when his gun malfunctioned and that’s when a by stander was able to subdue him (Abcarian & Hennessy, 2011). The police arrived to the scene 3 minutes later after the shooting had begun and apprehended Loughner (Abcarian & Hennessy, 2011).

In my view, the police response was inadequate and this unfortunate event would have been avoided. Considering the fact that most people that interacted with Loughner including some police officers had reported that Loughner was not in the correct state of mind, the law enforcement agencies would have taken some caution before allowing Jared access the conference hall. This include checking if he had carried any weapon or explosives, assessing his motives of attending the conference including even adding more security personnel in the event. How Jared was able to escape being notices by the police at the event to reach where the congress representative was even raises more questions. What took the police a whole 3 minutes to respond? Weren’t there some police officers at the event who could act swiftly at the sound of the first shot? These are the unanswered questions that make me believe that there was some form of negligence on the part of the police.

 How then can we prevent such events from occurring in near future?

Gun ownership among the mentally ill people is a very controversial issue. The mentally ill people are more likely to commit gun violence since they are in abnormal state of their minds and might lack insight in whatever they are doing (Sherman, 2001). In order to restrict gun ownership among those who are mentally ill the law makers should pass a law that would enable withdrawal of gun ownership among those who are reported to be having abnormal behaviour as reported by family members, friends or even security personnel. This withdrawal should be through a court order which should always be treated as a matter of urgency. Until that time that a mental health specialist shall approve that the person is no longer risking his life or that of the public then shall the gun be given back to him/ her.

In conclusion, gun violence cases have been on the rise in the recent future. Majority of these people have some mental health issues that were reported and ignored or that were not identified at the correct time. Evidence show that a person with mental health issue is more likely to commit a criminal act as compared to the general population. This is evidenced by an increase in gun violence incidence among those gun owners with mental illnesses. This is a matter that should be taken up by law makers who will form tight laws that would regulate ownership of guns among those with mental illnesses.

Work cited

  1. Abcarian, R., Reston, M., & Hennessy-Fiske, M. (2011, January 16). Tucson suspect: A troubled path; Police reports, classmates and Jared Loughner’s own words detail the Tucson suspect’s descent into darkness. Los Angeles Times, p. A1
  2. Colberg, S. (2011, February 5). Tucson shooting raises questions; Mental health; Could similar incidents be prevented? The Oklahoman,p. 19A.
  3. Goddard, H. H. (1914). Feeble-mindedness. Macmillan Company.
  4. Home Office. 2010. Crime in England and Wales 2009/10. London: Home Office.
  5. Lombroso, C. (2006). Criminal man. Duke University Press.
  6. McDermott, R., Johnson, D., Cowden, J., & Rosen, S. (2007). Testosterone and aggression in a simulated crisis game. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 614(1), 15-33.
  7. Shaw, C. R., & McKay, H. D. (1942). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas.
  8. Sherman, L. W. (2001). Reducing gun violence: What works, what doesn't, what's promising. Criminal Justice, 1(1), 11-25.
  9. Short, V., Lennox, C., Stevenson, C., Senior, J., & Shaw, J. (2012). Mental illness, personality disorder and violence: A scoping review. Manchester: Offender Health Research Network.
  10. The Arizona shooting, and what led up to it. (2011, January 9). The New York Times (NYTimes.com).
  11. World Health Organisation. 2007. International statistical classification of diseases
    and related health problems: 10th revision, version for 2007.
  12. World Health Organisation. 2002. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva:
  13. Zeleny, L. D. (1933). Feeble-mindedness and criminal conduct. American Journal of Sociology, 38(4), 564-576.
  14. Young, J. (1999). The exclusive society: Social exclusion, crime and difference in late modernity. Sage.


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