Media Sell the Mentally Ill as Violent Criminals. Truth Is, They’re Not.

Columbia University forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone dispels common myths about the intersection of violent acts and mental health disorders.

Michael Stone: The general public, I think, is at the mercy of what they read in the papers. And some of the crimes committed by mentally ill people are very dramatic and unusual. For instance some years ago — it must be maybe more than 20 years ago — there was a fellow Juan Gonzalez on the Staten Island ferry that took a sword of some sort and killed two people. And that of course was very dramatic and it was very much publicized. So it’s things of that sort that the public, not knowing the full statistical picture, are going to get the impression: Oh my god, mentally ill people, you really better steer clear of them if you knew who they were because they’re highly at risk to do something terrible and dramatic and violent.

So it gives the public the worry, the oh my god, the people who are mentally ill are doing these things all the time and the people that do them must be mentally ill because it’s crazy to commit murder. But the fact of the matter is from a standpoint of actual, diagnosable psychosis by a qualified psychiatrist, the number of violent crimes that are committed by mentally ill or psychotic people is relatively small, maybe 5 or 6 or 7 percent. If you’re schizophrenic, the risk of your doing a violent crime is four to six times higher than it would be in the general population. That means that 94 or 96 percent of people who are diagnosed schizophrenic are not committing a violent crime.

However, within the group who are — just to focus for the moment on schizophrenia — who commit a violent crime it depends on a number of other variables. For example if the person is alcoholic, has abused alcohol, then the rate goes up; maybe the risk is like 30 percent or 38 percent risk in the next year they’re going to do something violent. Oftentimes when a violent crime is committed by somebody who seems to be mentally ill, the police have a sense that this guy is not operating with a full deck, as it were. They have their own little expressions about that. They will have the person incarcerated. Maybe in New York City, it could be at Ryker’s or wherever in some local jail. And then have him evaluated by two psychiatrists or two psychologists who are able to do an adequate evaluation of the person’s mental state. If those two people conclude the person is — we don’t say insane. We say not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect — then they will be relegated to a forensic hospital rather than a prison. The exception would be if the crime itself is such high profile that the citizenry would be outraged at the idea of the person being put in this soft berth of the hospital such as Andrea Yates who drowned her five children. She was grossly psychotic. She was hallucinating; she was way out. But the nature of the crime was such that, especially in Texas, that she did get a break. She went to the prison.

Now there was a second trial and there she ended up finally where she should have been in the first place, in a forensic hospital. What the public doesn’t know is a lot of times a person in a forensic hospital was going to be incarcerated there and admittedly a more soft environment than a prison, but for way longer than the person would have been if he had gone through the ordinary prison system. In other words if you rape somebody and it’s a first rape and you’re young you go to prison, we’ll give him 10 years with three off for good behavior. Whereas if a person did a rape of a violent sort and was psychotic at the time and adjudicated as mentally ill and so on, he will go to a forensic setting. And perhaps be kept there for many, many years because it may be a violent record that preceded the major violent episode so that the person’s considered a pretty dangerous person until they’re much older.

And so that the public is actually often in a safer situation with a person in a forensic setting whenever they come up for their two-year evaluations — is the person okay to be released now? The psychiatrist says, "Nope, he’s not ready yet." And I’ve seen serial killers, for example in the forensic setting, who are kept for life. Whereas the same person having killed one or two people when they couldn’t prove that the person had also killed some other people besides would have gotten a comparatively light sentence in a prison, but ended up, justly so, separated from society forever in a forensic hospital. And they’re the ones that often they — let’s say the families are very worried about and the family will get them in the car and say we’re taking you to a picnic, but actually they take them to the emergency room because if the person knew that they were being taken to a psychiatric emergency room, they would not agree to go. And so then they feel railroaded, right arm twisted into going to the psychiatric emergency room or whatever by the family. But the reason that the family felt they had to do that was because maybe the person was behaving peculiarly or even being very disruptive or even maybe doing some assaultive or violent things at home. And they had no choice but to try to get this person into a situation of help even if they had to do it by trickery, kind of benign trickery.

Big Think and the Mental Health Channel are proud to launch Big Thinkers on Mental Health, a new series dedicated to open discussion of anxiety, depression, and the many other psychological disorders that affect millions worldwide.

In this video, Columbia University forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone dispels common myths about the intersection of violent acts and mental health disorders. He addresses the question of whether people with schizophrenia are more likely to commit violent crimes and how much danger they present to society at large. The answer? Not as much as you'd imagine, given the sensationalism of mainstream media coverage.

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How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

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  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

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An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

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An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

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"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

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How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.