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Is Mental Illness Relevant in Reporting a Crime?

Liz Spikol comments on the media’s reporting of a horrible and tragic shooting in Alger, Washington on Tuesday by 28-year-old Isaac Zamora. Philip chimes in over at Furious Seasons. Both suggest that mental illness is a relevant fact to the story, because it helps explain the criminal activity.

I say “Bollocks!”

A person’s mental illness no more “explains” someone’s criminal activity than someone who has no such history of an illness. Spikol says, for instance:

If that’s what made him [the murderer] go on a rampage–a disconnect from reality–that’s information.

It sure is. But what kind of information? Most people who have a disconnect from reality (virtually anyone diagnosed with schizophrenia or a psychotic disorder) do not go on to kill others. And research has shown that barring the abuse of substances, there is no significant statistical difference between people with mental illness and people without it when it comes to violent crimes. So I’d argue the kind of information being reported (since it’s never put into any kind of context by the reporter) is misinformation. Misinformation that just continues to reinforce the stigma of mental illness.

But as Philip pointed out, some news reports did report on the substance abuse issues:

The story as I understand it now is that Zamora has an unspecified mental illness, did not take his medication, his family couldn’t get him committed to a hospital, he lived in the woods in Skagit County, he was busted with cocaine recently, he attacked the car of a man who wouldn’t give him some pot and so on.

Tying the two together is the key, but no journalist did so. Apparently it’s such common wisdom that “shooting spree = mental illness,” no one ever goes and actually checks the facts.

Statistics also tells us that because approximately 10% of the American public qualifies for the diagnosis of a mental disorder at any given time, 10% of all crimes are going to be committed by someone who could be diagnosed with a mental disorder. But we don’t hear about all the petty criminals who grapple with depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. We only hear about the criminals who commit heinous acts.

We also don’t hear about the murders who kill a person here, or a person there, or any murderer who kills another person with a clear motive (regardless of their mental state). That’s reported as ordinary news, and the motive helps draw that human connect-the-dots we so desperately search for that “explains” the crime in our minds. “Oh, he was angry at his unfaithful, lying wife.”

Once we dissect such simplistic, motive-driven explanations, we quickly discover they are just as irrational and nonsensical as anything else. Most people who get angry at someone else don’t kill them. So even when a clear motive might exist (and is reported on), it is just as senseless and irrational a death than if it hadn’t been reported.

In other words, crime is itself an anomalous and abnormal behavior. Even our rational explanations for a crime don’t explain why most of us would never commit such a crime, while others do so without pause. Is every criminal mentally ill?

I don’t object to the reporting of such information, but I do object to the characterization of an individual primarily by their illness to help “explain” the tragedy.

Killing one person or killing six people are both horrible, tragic acts. But nothing can adequately explain them, least of all someone’s long-standing, 10-year mental illness presented in largely a vacuum of supporting information.

Is Mental Illness Relevant in Reporting a Crime?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Is Mental Illness Relevant in Reporting a Crime?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 4 Sep 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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