The horrifying mass murders at the Washington Navy Yard and Sandy Hook Elementary School were both committed by individuals with long-standing mental-health problems. The events galvanized a national discussion about how to improve the accessibility and quality of our mental-health system.
At the same time, these tragedies can paint in the mind of the public a false image of the mentally ill as universally violent and dangerous rather than human beings in need of assistance and compassionate care. That may account for why a shamefully large number of mentally ill people are behind bars. L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca has found himself heading what he calls “the nation’s largest mental hospital:” The L.A. County Jail.
While protecting public safety is a critical concern, it’s important to maintain perspective when analyzing the role of mental illness in violent crime. Harold Pollack, PhD, of the University of Chicago puts it this way:
Millions of Americans suffer from some form of severe mental illness, or SMI. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of these men and women have never committed a violent crime and never will commit one. Indeed, the mentally ill are often victims of violent crime, a social problem that has not received sufficient attention.
To dig into these important issues in a productive way, the medical school’s next Health Policy Forum will be devoted to the topic “Serious Mental Illness: How can we balance public health and public safety?” Harold Pollack and Lee Baca will come to Stanford for the forum and will be joined by our own Laura Roberts, MD, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The policy forum is open to the public and will be held this Thursday from 11:30 A.M. to 1:00 P.M, at the Li Ka Shing Center. If you’re a local reader, we hope you can attend and join in the conversation.
Addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD, is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a career research scientist at the Palo Alto VA. He recently completed a one-year stint as a senior advisor in the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.