Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario (CMHA Ontario) has released a new discussion paper titled “Violence and Mental Health: Unpacking a Complex Issue.” Although studies have shown that people living with mental health conditions are no more likely to engage in violent behaviour than the general population, public perceptions – often influenced by the media – are contributing to attitudes that have a significant impact on the lives of people with mental illnesses.
The paper notes that existing research on violence and mental health raises more questions than answers, in part because of multiple information gaps. Firstly, a definitive causal relationship between mental illnesses and violence has not been established. There are no population-based Canadian studies looking at violence or victimization among people with serious mental illnesses.
Moreover, some studies do not distinguish between mental illnesses, substance abuse/dependence or co-occurring mental illnesses and addictions. Although research regarding violence and mental health includes federal, provincial and municipal crime statistics, medical research, and investigative reports by the media, there is minimal critical social science research conducted on this topic, and even fewer studies that incorporate the perspectives of people living with a mental illness or their families.
Furthermore, there is a lack of Canadian and Ontario-specific research on violence and mental health, which also raises the question whether studies conducted in the United States, in Europe or Australia can be generalized to the Canadian population.
The paper concludes with a look at solutions for addressing violence and mental health. The majority of individuals with mental illnesses are not involved in violence. However, given the complex associations and the consequence of negative public perceptions, a multi-faceted approach is needed to address violence and mental health, including:
- Addressing the root causes of violence;
- Reducing stigma and discrimination;
- Increasing the availability and access to mental health services; and
- Utilizing a more sensitive approach by the media.
A reduction in negative media portrayals of mental illnesses is a critical strategy for altering sensationalized beliefs about the dangerousness of people with mental illnesses. The media can challenge negative attitudes by presenting stories that challenge myths and misinformation. The media also has great potential to transform public misperceptions by including positive portrayals of individuals with mental illnesses to help reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illnesses.
To access CMHA Ontario’s full discussion paper, “Violence and Mental Health: Unpacking a Complex Issue,” visit www.ontario.cmha.ca/backgrounders.