Psychosocial factors, psychological disorders and violent crime

October 03, 2017

A group of researchers from the department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Seville, in collaboration with the Public Foundation for the Integration of People with Mental Illnesses (FAISEM), has carried out a study in which they have tried to detect the main factors associated with being convicted of committing a violent crime.

The authors of the study have worked with 472 inmates, all men, who are serving their sentences in the prisons of Andalusia. Their work has taken as a starting point the data obtained in a previous study on the prevalence of psychological disorders in the Andalusian prison population. Using this data, they have analysed the relationship between the diagnoses of the inmates evaluated with the primes they were convicted of using some statistical techniques.

The association between violence and mental illness is strongly established in society and is one of the stigmas that people who are diagnosed as having a mental illness suffer from. However, the violence that can be attributed to people who suffer from mental disorders is no more than 10%, while the risk those people have of suffering violence is greater than the risk of them inflicting it.

The most relevant result is that suffering from mental illness is not the most important risk factor: people with a lower level of education are 10.32 times more likely to commit violent crimes than people with a high educational level. However, the results also show that, in a similar sense to the latest research, the prisoners diagnosed with a functional mental illness (not related to an organic disease or the consumption of toxic substances) were 3.5 times more likely to commit or attempt murder or to injure than those not diagnosed as suffering from mental illness.

Other variables that work as risk factors for committing violent crimes are having attempted suicide, a finding that is not totally new, and having attended a mental health centre in the year before entering prison. "We interpret this in the context of low psychiatric help for the inmates, therefore only the most conflictive patients and with the most disruptive behaviour were taken, in some cases obligatorily, to psychiatric consulting rooms or psychologists in health centre. We were also unable to determine whether they received treatment, or, if they did, what type", says Javier Saavedra, coordinator of the study.

The researchers highlighted that the presence of these factors did not mean that they were the causes of violent behaviour. "It is important to point out that correlational studies do not allow for the assurance of causal relationships. That is to say, in our case we know that mental illness and violence are associated, but we do not now know which is the cause or the effect", explains Saavedra.

"In summary, I would say that beyond factors exclusively associated with psychopathology, our results point to the fact that it is social failure in a context of marginalisation that best explains the risk of committing violent crimes. We hope that this result can help to lessen the stigma associated with these mental problems", concludes Saavedra.

On the other hand, some of the results of this research do not agree with the majority of the existing literature on this question. This is due to the fact that the statistical analysis used have left other classic factors like alcoholism and personality disorders out of the final equation that best predicts violent crimes.

In light of these results, Javier Saavedra highlights that "it is necessary to improve psychiatric attention in our prisons and also probably necessary to empower the coordination between public healthcare and the prison healthcare. Although it is fair to say that efforts are being made in these areas".

University of Seville

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