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Undertreatment of Mental Illness Causes Crime?

You really have to wonder at what the folks over at White Coat Notes, a health blog by The Boston Globe, were thinking when they wrote this about a recently published study:

Two thirds of prisoners nationwide with a mental illness were off treatment at the time of their arrest, according to a new study by Harvard researchers that suggests under-treatment of mental illness contributes to crime and incarceration. [emphasis added]

How can a survey of current prisoners suggest any type of causal relationship between crime and a medical or health condition? Would anyone suggest that because the same survey data found that prisoners are 31% more likely to have asthma, 55% more likely to have diabetes, and 90% more likely to have suffered a heart attack, that people who have asthma and who are “under-treated” contribute to “crime and incarceration”?? I guess no one bothers to actually read the studies any longer, or even have any type of skepticism when a doctor throws out comments that make no sense based upon their own data.

I guess I shouldn’t blame the author of the article, who was only reporting the ridiculous comments made by one of the Harvard researchers of the study:

“For many of them, treatment of their mental illness before their arrest might have prevented criminality and the staggering human and financial costs of incarceration,” said study author Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard and a primary care physician at the Cambridge Health Alliance’s Cambridge Hospital campus.

Really now? And what makes you say that? Because you wrongly believe there is some sort of correlation between having a mental illness (as opposed to asthma) and being more likely to commit a crime? But then again, I wouldn’t expect a primary care physician to be, well, a psychiatrist or mental health researcher who actually is an expert in such topics. So I have to wonder why such a physician feels perfectly comfortable commenting on possible causal relationships that their research had no way of showing.

There’s no doubt that if a person is taking their prescribed psychiatric medication, they’re possibly (probably?) going to be in a better place psychologically speaking. But how that’s related to the likelihood of committing a crime is beyond me, as there is no link between the two. Most people who take psychiatric medications do not commit crimes. And most criminals are not mentally ill.

Such discrimination still exists among researchers, despite the evidence that shows no such link exists (unless the person also has a substance abuse problem). We’ve written on this issue many times because the myth constantly gets repeated, even though it has little research support.

What the study did show is that prisoners are under-treated for their health and mental health conditions. That’s it. No surprise there, as prison systems tend to be under-funded and focused on simple warehousing these days, rather than helping a person reform or really improve themselves (at least in non-criminal ways).

Read the article: Harvard study: Under-treatment of mental illness contributes to crime

Undertreatment of Mental Illness Causes 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. (2019). Undertreatment of Mental Illness Causes Crime?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 May 2019 (Originally: 18 Jan 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 May 2019
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