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Straight, No Chaser In The News: Murders in Virginia, Depression and Violence

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In the news are the horrific live, on-air murders of a television personality and a cameraman. This brings up the relationship between mental health, depression, violent crimes and suicide. Let’s review a few facts on the topic.

  • The number of clinically depressed individuals involved in a violent crime is actually small (3.7% of men and 0.5% of women in a recently published study).
  • That said, the number of clinically depressed individuals involved in a violent crime is above average. Studies have found that the depressed are up to three times more likely to be convicted of a violent crime (1.2% of men and 0.2% of women in the general population).

How can these findings be explained? There are two pretty important considerations.

  1. Depression itself is associated with apathy, guilt, hopelessness and sadness. These are human conditions that can lead one to take actions that would normally not be done and also to do them in a way that wouldn’t normally be done (e.g. more recklessly). Violence certainly is included in the scope of actions such individuals consider under these circumstances.
  2. The percentages noted above relate to associations and are not meant to imply that depression causes violence. There is a difference between rates of performing crimes, getting caught performing crimes and getting convicted performing crimes. There are multiple associations found in those more likely to be diagnosed as clinically depressed (e.g. poverty and other components of a lower socioeconomic status) that independently render one less likely to perform well in the criminal justice system.

So what is the relevance of these facts in the current setting?
Let’s stop pretending it’s not the case that certain conditions exist that amount to a powder keg. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in the setting of either mental illness or other conditions (e.g. extreme poverty) explain many actions and societal ills. The better course of action (other than heartfelt mourning) is to be proactive and address conditions that produce these outcomes. It is not sufficient to explain away these conditions by ascribing them to poor mental health. Our societies must better appreciate that in many instances, “poor mental health” is a result of our environment and life circumstances, and are not simply a genetically imposed state of being. Let’s provide better support to those easily identified as being in need, and let’s better combat societal ills that have clearly been identified as risk enhancers for depression, other mental illness and violent crimes.
We offer condolences to all affected in this and many other similar tragedies.
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