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, Stanford medical school held a Health Policy Forum devoted to the topic “Serious Mental Illness: How can we promote public health and public safety?” Harold Pollack and Lee Baca graciously came to Stanford for the forum and were joined by Laura Roberts, MD, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a national expert in serious mental illness.