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Understanding the Relationship Between Mental Disorder and Violence: The Need for a Criminological Perspective

Law and Human Behavior

This paper offers a criminologically informed framework to guide research on the relationship between mental disorder and violence. Criminological theories examined include social learning, social stress, social control, rational choice, and social disorganization. In addition, the “criminal careers” and “local life circumstance” methodologies are reviewed. It is argued that adopting a criminologically informed framework that takes into account within-person changes over time will contribute greatly to our understanding of the factors that affect violence among people with mental disorder living in the community, and enhance the capacity of research to support effective evidenced-based case management programs aimed at reducing violence.

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Notes

  1. By “major mental disorder” I refer to disorders of thought and affect that form a subset of Axis I of the Fourth Edition (1994) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV). These include schizophrenia and major affective disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.

  2. This discussion has benefited greatly from Akers and Silverman's (2004) recent extension of social learning theory to the study of violence.

  3. It is important to note that the social learning processes described here are compatible with the notion that individuals often choose their social relationships in part based on perceived similarities between themselves and others. Indeed, researchers in the social learning tradition point out that perceived similarities between people that have an effect on their social relationships choices often are themselves influenced by learning during previous associations with others. Moreover, the theory would predict that even if a person's inclination toward violence influences their choice of associates, once an association is made, the frequency and seriousness of violence is likely to increase due to the processes described above (Akers, 2001, p. 197).

  4. In examining the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors regarding violence of social network members, researchers should strive to use methods that enable them to gather information directly from the social network members themselves. Doing so avoids the problem of same-source bias, that is, the tendency for individuals to rate members of their social network as holding views similar to their own (Jussim & Osgood, 1989).

  5. Since the late 1970s, several published studies have attempted to examine the relationship between stress and violence among mentally disordered people, all of which found a significant positive association (Levinson & Ramsey, 1979; Steadman & Ribner, 1982; Monahan et al., 2001; Swanson et al., 2002). In none of these studies, however, was the effect of life stress on violence examined among a non-mentally disordered comparison sample. Thus, the extent to which the relationship between mental disorder and violence is due to prior levels of life stress was not examined in these prior studies

  6. Although the concept of chronic stress has not been tested in a study of mental disorder and violence, it has received a good deal of attention in the mental health literature (Aneshensel, 1992; Pearlin, 1989; Turner, Wheaton, & Lloyd, 1995) and some attention in the criminology literature (Hoffman & Cerbone, 1999). For example, recent and chronic life stress have been shown to contribute to the occurrence of depressive symptoms among community residents, helping to explain variation in depressive symptoms across key social positions, including race, gender, and social class (for a review, see Aneshensel, 1992). In addition, stressful life events have been shown to have a cumulative effect on delinquency over the life course, suggesting that early and persistent exposure to stress may be an important link between social demographic characterstics and delinquency (Hoffman & Cerbone, 1999; Sigfusdottir et al., 2004). Thus, the hypothesis that chronic stress may contribute to the relationship between mental disorder and violence remains plausible and should be examined in future research.

  7. A recent survey of approximately 200 adult outpatients in 5 states found that half of all people receiving public-sector mental health treatment do so under some form of “leverage,” including money, housing, criminal justice intervention, or outpatient commitment (Monahan et al., 2005).

  8. This discussion has benefited greatly from a recent description of the age-graded theory of informal social control provided by Laub, Sampson, and Allen (2001).

  9. See Thornberry (1997) for a review of other developmental approaches in the field of criminology.

  10. This discussion has benefited greatly from Felson's (2004) recent application of rational choice theory to the study of violence.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This work was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health's Center for Mental Health Services and Criminal Justice Research. Special thanks go to Edward P. Mulvey, Henry J. Steadman, John Monahan, and Brent Teasdale for commenting on an earlier draft of this work.

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Silver, E. Understanding the Relationship Between Mental Disorder and Violence: The Need for a Criminological Perspective. Law Hum Behav 30, 685–706 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10979-006-9018-z

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