What Happens When Victims Are Seen as Aggressors

The baseless stigma about people with mental illness being more violent can lead to tragedy during wellness checks. How do we change it?


There’s a perception that people with mental illness are more likely to be violent, but it isn’t rooted in fact. Research shows that they are more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators.

Concern is mounting in Canada over recent deaths involving police who were responding to mental health crises or performing wellness checks. This includes protests demanding justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet who fell from her balcony following an interaction with police, and the fatal police shootings of Ejaz ChoudryChantel Moore, and Rodney Levi.

It’s important to set the record straight because a false perception that people with mental illness are more prone to violence sows seeds of fear. That enters into the calculation of risk that responders make as they approach these calls for assistance during an episode.

Of course, the issue is complex and highly intersectional. Combined with other stigmatized factors, like race and poverty, it can magnify the false perception of risk even further.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, people with mental health conditions are no more likely to be violent than the general population, but they are more likely to be victims of violence.

Sandy Simpson, Chief of Forensics at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and Stephanie Penney, research psychologist in the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at CAMH did a study on all Canadian homicides from 1987 to 2012. Based on the data, 710 people were killed by strangers, and only 15 of them (2 percent) were killed by people who were mentally unwell.

They concluded that the chance of being killed by a stranger as a result of their mental illness is very rare. A similar study in Sweden concluded that only 5 percent of all violent crime convictions were committed by people with a severe mental illness.

By contrast, mental illness is a risk factor for self-harm, bullying, and victimization. As many as a quarter of people with mental illness are likely to be victims of violence in any given year. Many are unemployed, homeless, or lacking social support networks, and this makes them more vulnerable to abuse.

We need better policies on how to deal with mental health crises that reflect this truth. Evidence-based approaches to de-escalation are likely to have better outcomes than for police to be the sole first responders.

That’s why the Canadian Mental Health Association has been partnering with regional police forces to form Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Teams. They pair a police officer with an experienced mental health professional or social worker to respond to mental health and addiction calls. By getting people the help they need, especially before reaching crisis levels, they’re decreasing the number of apprehensions of the people they serve.

Investing more heavily in programs like these to expand their reach helps resolve issues without resorting to using weapons or sending people in crisis through the criminal justice system.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.