When Do the Emotionally Disturbed Resort to Violence?

Severe mental illness alone is not generally enough to cause violent behavior

Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld 

Image: Terry Vine Getty Images

Earlier this year a 22-year-old college dropout, Jared Lee Loughner, shot Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords through the head near a Tucson supermarket, causing significant damage to Giffords’s brain. In the same shooting spree, Loughner killed or wounded 18 others, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.

Information from Loughner’s postings on YouTube and elsewhere online suggests that he is severely mentally ill. Individuals with serious mental illnesses have perpetrated other recent shoot-ings, including the massacre in 2007 at ­Virginia Tech in which a college senior, ­Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 people and wounded 17. These events and the accompanying media coverage have probably fed the public’s perception that most profoundly mentally ill people are violent. Surveys show that 60 to 80 percent of the public believes that those diagnosed with schizophrenia, in particular, are likely to commit violent acts.

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