Mental Health Issues Drive Crime
As a police officer decades ago, I got a call that there was an elderly woman walking in the travel portion of the Washington, D.C. beltway. I shut down traffic on both sides of an immensely dangerous artery, approached her, and tried to talk her into coming with me. After being kicked (very hard) several times, I had to take her into custody for her own safety.
Every day police officers are encountering multiple people with mental health problems. Cops are not trained as mental health experts, and the results are often disturbing.
When I was a spokesperson for law enforcement, correctional and parole and probation agencies, I was repeatedly told that mental health or emotional problems were the heart of our crime problem, probably driven by massive child abuse and neglect, see Crime in America-Child Abuse. The problem is made significantly worse by substantial substance abuse by the great majority of people caught up in the justice system.
Parole and probation agents routinely stated that the majority of their caseloads consist of people with challenging mental health and emotional issues exacerbated by substance abuse.
We’ve known for decades when states closed mental health hospitals (something that advocates called for due to questionable care) and dumped mentally ill people into unprepared communities, that it would have an impact on crime.
Needless to say, just because someone has a mental health problem, it doesn’t mean they will enter the criminal justice system. Most don’t. But the ratios below are disturbing.
2017 Report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics
About 1 in 7 state and federal prisoners and 1 in 4 jail inmates self-reported experiences that met the threshold for serious psychological distress (SPD) in the 30 days prior to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2011-12 National Inmate Survey. In comparison, data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that about 1 in 19 persons in the standardized U.S. general population met the threshold for SPD.
Prevalence of mental health disorders
More than a third (37%) of prisoners had been told by a mental health professional in the past that they had a mental health disorder. Prisoners were most commonly told they had a major depressive disorder (24%), a bipolar disorder (18%), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or personality disorder (13%), and schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder (9%).
Forty-four percent of jail inmates had been told by a mental health professional in the past that they had a mental health disorder. Nearly a third (31%) of jail inmates had previously been told that they had major depressive disorder and a quarter (25%) had been told they had a bipolar disorder.
About 18% of jail inmates had been told they had an anxiety disorder, 16% had been told they had PTSD, and 14% had been told they had a personality disorder.
About the prisoners and jail inmates
Females held in prisons or jails were more likely than males to have met the threshold for SPD or to have a history of a mental health problem. In prisons, 20% of females and 14% of males met the threshold for SPD. Two-thirds (66%) of female prisoners and around a third (35%) of male prisoners had been told by a mental health professional that they had a mental health disorder.
In jails, an estimated 29% of inmates incarcerated for a violent offense met the threshold for SPD. This was greater than the percentage of jail inmates incarcerated for a property (27%) crime, another public order (26%) offense, a drug (25%) crime, or DWI/DUI (24%).
Mental health treatment
Approximately three-quarters of prisoners (74%) and jail inmates (73%) who met the threshold for SPD said they had received mental health treatment in their lifetime. More than half (54%) of prisoners and a third (35%) of jail inmates who met the threshold for SPD had received mental health treatment since admission to their current facility.
2006 Report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics
More than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem.
These estimates represented 56% of State prisoners, 45% of Federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates.
The findings in this report were based on data from personal interviews with State and Federal prisoners in 2004 and local jail inmates in 2002.
Mental health problems were defined by two measures: a recent history or symptoms of a mental health problem. They must have occurred in the 12 months prior to the interview.
More than two-fifths of State prisoners (43%) and more than half of jail inmates (54%) reported symptoms that met the criteria for mania.
About 23% of State prisoners and 30% of jail inmates reported symptoms of major depression. An estimated 15% of State prisoners and 24% of jail inmates reported symptoms that met the criteria for a psychotic disorder.
For more information on crime and mental health issues, see Crime in America-Mental Health
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Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University