Misconceptions and Truths About Schizophrenia and Crime
Schizophrenia “causes paranoia, disorganized thinking, delusions, and hallucinations, including irrational beliefs and seeing things, or hearing voices…” (Schizophrenia Society of Saskatchewan, Statement on Violence Associated with Schizophrenia, 1997) Sometimes, these people believe that a radio, television, or other source is speaking or giving instructions to them. While it's a rare occurrence, these hallucinations can lead to violent behavior.
Only a Small Percentage of Schizophrenics Are Violent.
Only a small percentage of those suffering from schizophrenia are violent. But when there is no treatment or medication, especially over a long period of time, acts of violence, including homicide, can occur. Violence is usually a result of irrational beliefs or feeling threatened (paranoia). Some schizophrenics, who do receive treatment, will use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. The more substance abuse occurs, the higher the chances of violent behavior.
Other Factors That Cause Violence
- Child abuse
- Insults to masculinity
- Specific sexual abnormalities
- Death of a loved on or friend
- Alienation of a lover
- Loss of a job
Types of Aggressive Behavior
1. Destruction of property
2. Aggression against oneself
3. Aggression against others.
Examples of Destructive Behavior Caused by Schizophrenia
- Some examples of destruction of property: One man smashed a store window because he believed a dinosaur was jumping out at him. Patients have thrown rocks at cars. One man attacked a telephone booth with an ax.
- Examples of self-destructive behavior: One patient went to Sears, purchased a chainsaw, then took it to the women’s room and severely injured herself because of voices she heard. “Approx. 40% of people with schizophrenia attempt suicide and 10% complete the act, apparently as a result of the voices or to escape the suffering caused by the voices and other symptoms. By far, the majority of serious violent acts... are directed toward themselves.” (Schizophrenia Society of Saskatchewan)
- Examples of violence directed toward others: Schizophrenics sometimes believe that voices are commanding them to kill. In Delaware County, PA, a judge ruled that a man was incompetent to stand trial in the slaying of wrestler David Schultz. All the psychiatrists who testified agreed that the patient suffered from psychotic delusions, and some of those doctors diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic (What it Means to be Psychotic, Schizophrenic, Paranoid, by Marie McCollough). In 1848, a man was not admitted to the insane asylum because it was crowded. Shortly thereafter, instructed by voices, he killed his mother and father. In 1986, a man was not admitted to a local psychiatric hospital—also because of overcrowding. Shortly thereafter, instructed by voices telling him to kill, he carried a sword aboard a Staten Island ferry and killed two strangers. A year earlier, a woman pushed a stranger into the path of a subway train. A New Jersey man felt his neighbors where persecuting and belittling him, made a list of his persecutors, then systematically killed 13 people in 20 minutes (from Surviving Schizophrenia, by E. Fuller Torrey).
- Examples of how schizophrenia affects other people: One woman refused to pay at restaurants because she believed she was Jesus Christ reincarnated. One man was arrested for repeatedly following two men he believed were CIA agents and kidnapped his imaginary benefactress. Some people walk nude in the streets.
Patrick O'Brien on Violence and Schizophrenia
In The Disordered Mind-What We Know About SchizophreniaPatrick O’Brien says, "…there is good evidence for tendency to paranoia among criminals. If one is prone to violence to begin with, then a disorganizing process like schizophrenia... may execrate those tendencies. A violent individual who becomes schizophrenic will be both violent and schizophrenic." ,
Samuel Cohen on Misreporting Violet Crime
However, in The Lancet, Samuel Cohen says, “Reports of violent crime in the popular press often state that a schizophrenic patient was responsible, although the press report frequently reveals that the person was drinking or taking drugs at the time of the incident. Imprecise diagnosis encourages journalists to use the word schizophrenia indiscriminately and helps to give the condition a bad name.”
Highly Publicized Crimes by Schizophrenics
- John Bradley, All-American hockey goalie and honors student at Bowdoin College, brutally killed his father and mother.
- John Hinkley Jr., who was schizophrenic, tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
- In 1983, the son of Ronald Reagan’s tax attorney, a man with schizophrenia, killed his mother.
- Rosemary Kennedy, sister of JFK, was said to have wild moods, tantrums, and rage. She became kind of a wild animal by cursing and thrashing out. She would use her fists. She kit and kicked her grandfather in the summer of 1941.
While the risk of violence from schizophrenics is still low, the uncomfortable truth is that “A worldwide 1996 study found that schizophrenic patients were five times more likely than people in the general population to be convicted of violent crimes. A Finnish study concluded that the risk of committing a homicide was about ten times greater.” (, by Robert Francis) On Conquering Schizophrenia: From the Desk of a Therapist and Survivor
A Few Solutions to Schizophrenic Violence
- One-to-one confrontation from a calm source attempting to de-escalate the aggression is often the best solution. The patient should be helped to recognize their rage and other emotions so they can realize the consequences of their behavior.
- The supreme court has ruled that a psychiatrist has a duty to issue a warning when they encounter a patient who threatens violence.
- Schizophrenia Society of Saskatchewan, Statement on Violence Associated with Schizophrenia, 1997.
- O’Brien, Patrick. . November 1, 1978. The Disordered Mind-What we Know About Schizophrenia
- Torrey, E. Fuller. . March 26, 2019. Surviving Schizophrenia, 7th Edition: A Family Manual
- Francis, Robert. . April 22, 2019. On Conquering Schizophrenia: From the Desk of a Therapist and Survivor
- McCollough, Marie. What It Means to be Psychotic, Schizophrenic, Paranoid.
- Cohen, Samuel I. The Lancet.
© 2020 Mark Richardson