08 April 2018

Hell hath no fury...

Imagine being so ill that you cannot even get out of bed. Or being too sick to spend time with your family and friends. Now imagine being too frightened and ashamed to tell anyone you are ill. Being so humiliated by your disease, that you can’t even tell your own doctor that you are ill.

One out of five people, 20% worldwide, have a mental illness. Many often go through this scenario. Some bravely ask for help. Some hide in the shadows. Some hide in alcohol or drugs.

When I was a young, inexperienced doctor, I was certain that the unfair stigma of mental illness would and should be eradicated in my lifetime. I felt that mental and physical illness were both simply illnesses to be treated. Now, after treating mental illness for decades, I know that I was correct.

The suffering of those with mental illness is real, and as varied, as patients suffering from anything from a broken leg to heart disease. Just as there is nothing shameful in having cancer, there is nothing shameful about having a mental illness.

Where I might have been a tad optimistic was in my hope that all the stigma of mental illness would be eradicated in my lifetime. However, since I am not dead yet there is, indeed, time. I have seen a lifting of the stigma of mental illness, a willingness to talk about it and reach out and get help.

What we still need to do is reach into the dark corners, the places where this stigma grows, and open the curtains and let the light disinfect the place.

The one prevailing myth that needs some attention is that the mentally ill are dangerous. This comes from articles about murders or violent crime, where mental illness is brought up as a possible cause. Also, from the books where murderers are often mentally ill: yes, I mean novels about crime.

If there is a disinfectant for myth, it is fact.

Since the U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with 666 citizens in jail per 100,000 of the population, we can assume that most of the dangerous people do end up in jail. However, if all those who are mentally ill were dangerous, that would mean that 20% of the population, more like 20,000 per 100,000 population, would be in prison.

How about an analysis of those who are in prison? Large scale reviews have shown that, in the prison population, less than 4% have psychotic illnesses.

The myths of mental illness and murder arise most frequently with the worst offenders: mass murderers. Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University who maintains a database of 350 mass killers going back more than a century, has found that only one in five are psychotic or delusional. This means that 4 out of 5 mass murderers are people who are clinically sane. 

Even analyses of those who are mentally ill and commit crimes shows that only 7.5 percent were directly related to symptoms of mental illness.

So, is there NO connection between mental illness and crime, particularly violent crime? The answer is that there is a very small connection, and one that is present largely in those who are not treated and who also abuse alcohol/drugs.

Those who are depressed are three times as likely to commit a violent crime. However, 60% of people who kill themselves have a mood disorder and suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US overall, and the second leading cause of death of 15-34 year olds. Since there are twice as many suicides as homicides, the most likely violence done by depressed people is to themselves, not to others.

With schizophrenia, the risk of committing a violent crime was 3-5 times greater, but this was found largely in those not on medication. This research on violence and mental illness also showed that those who are mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

For a final look at mental illness and murder, I present the full quote from the title of this article: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Most of us would say that scorn is a good motivation for murder and that Shakespeare was insightful for writing this. However, Shakespeare didn't write it - it was written by the playwright William Congreve. Further, this isn’t even what was written – the actual line is ‘“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

Common, widespread ideas can be wrong – like the origin of this “Shakespeare” phrase and the idea that those with mental illness are inherently violent. Certainty is meaningless unless it can be backed by facts, and in this case the facts do not support the certainty that most people feel.

Sometimes our first impression is wrong. Even with things we feel that we know, such as Shakespeare or mental illness.

The US has the highest civilian incarceration in the world. — Ed.


  1. Great post, Mary. Mental illness is one of the last things that people will talk about: or, when they do talk about it, they talk wrong. As in "addiction isn't a mental illness, but a matter of moral weakness vs. will power." BS.

    I know that, in prison, the mentally ill and mentally handicapped are kept in separate pods not because they're that dangerous (the true psychopaths are kept in a separate mental health unit) but because they're most likely to be victims. True on the outside as well.

    And, from what I've seen, the mass shootings, etc., are mostly done by people who have toxic anger, not mental illness. Basically, angry assholes. Would that our society would realize that and try to come up with a way to deal with it.

  2. Eve - exactly. I agree. Those with mental illness are often stigmatized and that doesn't help.
    In the old days, people were frightened to admit to physical illnesses, thinking that they would be judged to be sinful and therefore punished by God. Those days are gone (mostly) and we need to get there with mental illness too.

  3. Someone in my family, more than one person actually, has been in & out of mental hospitals for years. I attended some of her family therapy sessions & part of the "therapy" seemed to consist of the doctor telling her, in front of others, that she was crazy. Sorry but I don't think much of that form of treatment. If the patient had cancer, would it have been helpful for the doctor to scream at her, in group, that she needed chemotherapy?!

    According to http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2013/07/hidden-maryland-office-of-the-chief-medical-examiner/#1 , homicide accounts for about 14 percent of deaths, suicide for 12 percent, and accidents for 27 percent.

  4. Hi Elizabeth,

    First, I am sorry for the unsavoury experiences you have had. I cannot and will not defend all therapists. And screaming is always unacceptable.

    What I will say, unequivocally, is that treatment is crucial. That does not mean ANY treatment. But effective treatment is crucial to alleviate suffering and it is available.

    The reason I say is because there is nothing more discouraging and heartbreaking for those who are suffering, than the suggestion that help is not available. It is.

  5. Mary, in a way, we still harbor many of the witchery notions of our forebears.

    I've read dollar-for-dollar, mental illness is considerably more cost-effective to treat than physical illness. Moreover, treating mental problems often has a positive spill-over effect in treating physical maladies. Unfortunately, present perceptions discourage insurance companies covering illnesses they can't see.

  6. Dear Leigh,

    'Witchery' - so true, on every front.
    If 1/5 peopler impacted, I cannot think of any other illness that would receive so little funding, therapeutic options and coverage.
    And the 'feeling' that most violence is committed by those with mental illness, has bred so many books - often inaccurately written - about the mentally ill committing crimes.
    I am not arguing that there is no place for these thoughts or these books, but I do believe that they feed into the stigma of mental illness. Worse, they worry people with mental illness, pushing them into hiding.
    I find that deeply cruel.
    For them and those who love them.

    Thanks for your comments


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