Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mental Illness And Murder: Who is Most Likely To Kill?

Charles Whitman, who killed and wounded 48 people on the University of Texas campus in 1966,
was depressed and addicted to amphetamines. He was also psychotic at the time of the murders.
The media pays a lot of attention to murder. Plain old murders are exciting enough, but what about when someone with a mental illness is involved? We hear stories of hallucinations, delusions, commands from God or the Devil--the murderer was completely psychotic and thought his mother was poisoning his food. He was hearing the voice of God telling him he was the Chosen One who was brought to Earth to rid the world of evil. He should kill his mother and chop her into bits as a warning to others. Nothing sells better than out-of-your-mind crazy murder.

And, those murders do happen. Jared Loughner is a recent example of an individual with a psychotic thought disorder whose delusions led him to kill a number of people and attempt to kill even more. However, those murders are rare. They seem to happen all the time, but that is mostly because the news is dominated by them for months after they occur--the stories are too juicy to ignore.

What is much more common though is run-of-the-mill murder. The media covers these murders, but they quickly move on to other stories...usually other run-of-the-mill murders.

And who commits these plain old murders? For the most part, it is normal people killing other normal people. Maybe someone with an anger problem. Most likely someone with a substance abuse problem.

In 2008, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania reported on statistics from the Indiana Department of Corrections. They examined prisoners with mental illness who had been convicted of murder. Here are the common characteristics they found:

1. Male
2. White
3. High school education or GED
4. Rage or anger directed toward a family member was the most common motive for murder
5. Raised in dysfunctional homes
6. History of substance abuse
7. History of legal problems
8. Received little treatment for mental health issues and substance abuse disorders prior to the murder
9. Diagnosed with a mood disorder (like Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder)

Although it might not make as interesting of a news story, a typical murder takes place when a man who is depressed (and experiencing anger as a symptom of that depression) and drunk (thus lowering his inhibitions) gets angry with a family member or friend and shoots that person. it is much less typical for a person with Schizophrenia to go on a shooting spree, even though those are the murders we hear about over and over again on the news.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Matejkowski, J. C., Cullen, S. W., & Solomon, P. L. (2008). Characteristics of Persons With Severe Mental Illness Who Have Been Incarcerated For Murder. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 36, pp. 74-86.


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