violence and mental illness: how should we talk about it?

earlier this week, our newspapers were full of the tragic story of clare shelswell, the little girl who was killed by her stepfather, peter wilson. on june 29, the vancouver sun devoted half of page 1 and 2 to it. on page 2, there was also an article that contained an interview with an expert related to the case.

as often happens, once the article was written and the newspaper put together, it was printed in several phases. these early versions often end up on the internet and the printed versions are distributed to outlying areas. any corrections that are made tend to end up in the vancouver printings.

as it turns out, the article on page 2 that can be found on the internet and was printed in the earlier versions reads

bipolar patients can become violent, prof says

mental health advocates, tod maffin for example, got understandably mad about it.

yup, those bipolar people. they can become violent. which probably means that half of them are violent, right? (that’s how the human brain often thinks: “can” means either yes or no, so “obviously”, there being two choices, there is a 50 per cent chance for one of the two possibilities to occur). fortunately, thanks to tod, the headline was corrected to read “bipolar patients rarely become violent, prof says” (my emphasis).

i would say, though, that the actual article that reported the killing was quite responsible. here is the excerpt that mentions that the killer had bipolar disorder:

sergi [the public defender] described wilson as “lucid” during the brief court appearance, adding his client appeared to understand the proceedings.

no formal charge has been laid. wilson earlier waived his rights under state law to be charged within 72 hours of his arrest.

his next court appearance is scheduled for july 12.

meanwhile, prosecutors are considering whether to pursue the death penalty.

sergi said an accused’s criminal history and the details of the alleged crime are key factors that must be weighed in a capital case.

sergi was uncertain how a mental illness defence might affect the death-penalty decision.

both wilson and his wife told police he suffers from bipolar disorder for which he takes medication.

what do you think? how should violence perpetrated by people with mental health issues be portrayed? for example, should the article that talks about violence and bipolar disorder have mentioned that persons with mental health issues are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators?


  1. My first reaction is how deplorable of an act that is and he deserves the death penalty. But, as an advocate with those with mental illnesses, I step back and wonder how much his bipolar disorder contributed to his behavior. Was there a history of abuse toward the child? Was he compliant with treatment? Was he known to be violent during manic episodes? Was he lucid during the act? People don’t understand that person’s with bipolar or other mental illnesses can often be lucid and reasonable at one time and then can change due to the illness. Definitely, the article should have not been so biased and included the part that you mention.

    I was outraged by the coverage of the “Pentagon Shooting” earlier this year and this is the link to my post about it. Take look at it if you want to. He also was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

  2. if you have a filter on in the event of multiple links I sent one that is not spam…

    I copied it…it seems to have gone into a spam filter.

  3. I’ll split it up in parts:

    UNC study: Mental illness by itself does not predict future violent behavior

    People with mental illness alone are no more likely than anyone else to commit acts of violence, a new study by UNC researchers concludes.

    that is the fact…but violence sells…

    Oprah once did a segment on bipolar disorder and every single guest (including a couple of celebrity guests) talked about their violence…

    that is grossly skewing reality…but like I said it sells…

    so it will never change…the garden variety “bipolar patient ” is boring…violence is not.

  4. part 2

    more on the subject from John Grohol at psych central:

    As far as the final question I’m not sure mental illness need be brought up in the context of violence in many and maybe most cases…ANYONE can be violent. The fact is they’ve acted criminally.

    Why not focus on the crime instead. I think using mental illness as an excuse in most instances is just that…an excuse that allows those with labels to avoid responsibility for actions.

  5. Thanks Isabella Mori for coming back after ages. I have been busy in different pursuits. And am planning to bring your older post at Light Within up. That still holds good. How are you?

  6. I think inserting the ‘rarely’ is the change needed in the headline.

    I think it is OK for mental illness to be mentioned in the article – along with other personal details. I do think that, where there is such ignorance, the report should add some extra information – like how often people with a particular mental illness are likely to be violent.

  7. It is a little known fact but fewer than 5% of violent crimes are committed by those with a mental health disorder. Which means the general population is responsible for 95% of all crimes.

    By including mental health issues at all in the story, creates an immediate association. There is fact that people with bipolar disorder can have emotional outbreaks, but violence is such a small percentage. Is there research to back-up that cancer patients or diabetics don’t have the same violent tendencies either?

    Violence in those with Bi-polar disorder is not the whole story with everyone and in every scenario.

    One way of combating the mainstream fear based media is to combat it with facts.

    Imagine if the alternative media and those within our community created headlines for all the ordinary and extra ordinary things that people with Mental Illness have done. Such as:

    – Father with Bi-polar is successful journalist (Scott Sinnie)

    – Person diagnosed with a Mental Disorder makes incredible music (Bonfire Madigan Shive)

    – Female News anchor successful despite MH issues (Jane Pauley)

    – Woman with Bi-Polar Disorder raises loving family (Autumn Stringham)

    – Person struggling with depression helps other who are depressed through comedy (David Granier)

    – Person with Schizophrenia teaches doctors a few things (Robbie Englequist)

    – Person lives with depression but manages to be a successful Sports Caster (Michael Landsberg)

    We need to make this visual for people, like some massive group photo.

    If we could build into the social consciousness that bi-polar disorder is more complex than violent outbursts. Obviously a violent outburst is the absolute worst case scenario. However, society and those around us have to take an active role in ensuring environments aren’t unhealthy in the first place.

    For example, what were the circumstances leading up to the tragic incident. Was there a domestic dispute? Was the argument unnecessarily escalated, did father have to work overtime because his Boss was pressuring him not knowing about his condition. Was he losing sleep because of financial issues from a lifestyle they could not afford? Many more questions, but who is providing solutions?

    People with bi-polar disorder can be productive and healthy people, however it takes an understanding and supportive network to make them the best they can be. Emotional outbursts will happen, however the support network needs to understand this and be equipped how to handle it. If only the media could provide that advice to people everytime they wish to publish a violence fueled story.

    Newspapers to no end can tell readers how to protect themselves from being scammed by a used car dealer. However, do they dare share information on how to save a life with someone with bi-polar disorder, or are they really more concerned about selling cars?

    We need to build compassion, patience and understanding into our day to day dialogue. Its so much easier for people to blame the illness and hope that medical system will fix everything.

    By avoiding the full discussion about mental health we are only enabling the next headline by those that have no stake other than selling products in our community.


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