Recent Study: Psychiatric Characteristics of Homicide Defendants

October 24, 2013

A recent article in the American Journal of Psychiatry looked at the rates of mental disorders in a sample of homicide defendants in order to identify psychiatric issues associated with the defendants. In light of the events of the past few years, filled with many cases of mass shootings and cries of a mental health crisis, this article is very important in providing new data to the body of research about violence and mental health.

Fifty eight percent of the homicide defendants studied qualified for a diagnosis, with forty seven percent receiving a substance abuse disorder diagnosis. However this study found a lower prevalence rate in the diagnosis of mental disorders than previous studies have found, in particular finding a lower prevalence rate of psychotic disorders (4%) in the defendants. It should also be noted that this study found that clinical variables were not associated with specific offense characteristics or case outcomes. An extremely important finding from the study notes that psychiatric factors did not in fact predict the outcome of a guilty verdict, use of firearms or the presence of multiple victims in the crime.

The study also found that though 53% of the sample qualified for an Axis I disorder, only eight percent of the defendants had received any form of psychiatric treatment in the three months leading up to the homicide. While mental illness is often blamed for the cause of many homicides unjustly, in cases where it has proved true, this study speaks to the need for more adequate mental health care. Identification and care of high risk individuals needs to increase in order for the mental health community to have an impact on the homicide levels in our country. Hopefully the research and insights from this study and those to follow will help influence the rhetoric around mental illness and serious violence that is so often oversimplified in our media and communities today.

Read the full study here.

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Trish Solomon

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