Stigma Drives Myth of Link Between Mental Health and Crime

Man in red jacket looking out at waterThe assumption that mental health conditions are linked to criminal behavior spurs discrimination and stigma, potentially triggering anxiety and worsening mental health, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports. The study explored why mental health stigma is so prevalent and which factors influence it.

Understanding Mental Health Stigma

The study involved a representative sample of 10,000 people in Switzerland. A total of 2,207 people met inclusion criteria and responded to the survey, producing a sample that was majority (61.5%) female. Participants ranged in age from 18-65, with a mean age of 43.

Researchers asked participants to estimate the dangerousness of people in a fictional treatment vignette. Half of the vignettes featured symptoms of mental health diagnoses such as psychosis or addiction. The other half only provided information about the location of treatment, such as in a general or psychiatric hospital.

Providing only the treatment location or a list of mental health symptoms elevated participants’ perceptions of danger. Mental health symptoms were especially likely to elevate danger perceptions. People with alcohol addictions were more strongly perceived as dangerous. Vignettes that provided information about treatment in a general hospital were perceived as less dangerous.

Though mental health diagnoses were generally linked with stigma, exposure to the mental health system reduced stigma. Participants who had personal contact with psychiatric patients or who had themselves sought psychiatric care were less likely to stigmatize symptoms of mental health conditions.

Research Does Not Support Link Between Mental Health and Crime

Though media coverage of mental health often links mental health conditions to crimes, research does not support this link. A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found people with mental health conditions are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators. In a six-month period, the study found 30.9% of participants were victims of violence.

A study published in the journal Law and Human Behavior assessed the link between crimes and mental health symptoms. Researchers looked at 429 violent crimes committed by 143 people who were diagnosed with one or more mental health conditions. Just 7.5% of those crimes were directly related to symptoms of mental health conditions.


  1. Mental illness not usually linked to crime, research finds. (2014, April 21). Retrieved from
  2. Society considers people with mental illnesses to be more dangerous than they are. (2017, April 3). Retrieved from
  3. Sowislo, J. F., Gonet-Wirz, F., Borgwardt, S., Lang, U. E., & Huber, C. G. (2017). Perceived dangerousness as related to psychiatric symptoms and psychiatric service use — a vignette based representative population survey. Scientific Reports, 8. doi:10.1038/srep45716
  4. Study shows mentally ill more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence. (2014, February 25). Retrieved from

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  • isla

    April 26th, 2017 at 1:36 PM

    but you would concede that many of the people who are currently incarcerated do have some sort of mental illness? this is what i have always heard anyway

  • Richard

    April 26th, 2017 at 10:12 PM

    Being Seriously Mentally Ill since age 32 I’ve been incarcerated more often than my counter parts (peers). There is the ongoing belief that we’re dangerous and should be jailed. Please think otherwise. Due to my ignorance I allowed my mistreatment and incarceration. 1/3 of the inmate population is mentally affected by addiction(a DMS 5 classified condition) or psychiatric conditions. Mental health treatment is what is needed. Not a go nowhere trip to lockup! When will people start looking at the reality of mental health instead believing in what they’re feed by the media and ignorance of others. Inform yourself. You’ll learn much and be wiser. Accept that 1 in 4 are affected by mental health or substance abuse issues. It’s an epidemic. Look up the word. With respect.

  • Paton

    April 27th, 2017 at 10:44 AM

    It is exceedingly clear to me that we have so much work that needs to be done in both the realm of criminal correction and mental health. Whether these two things are intricately tied together or not, I don’t think that there is one right or wrong answer. I think that there are going to be cases where you could say either yes or no. But what does without a doubt need to be improved is compassion toward both segments of the population, and a determination that one should not be written off just because they have one or the other as a part of their life stories.

  • NurseShannon

    April 28th, 2017 at 11:38 AM

    It is never a good thing to solely point the finger in one direction or another.

    Each situation is going to be unique with its own contributions and causes. It is critical that we not lump all into one singular category. This kind of treatment helps no one.

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