A leading mental health expert hopes recent research showing high rates of violence against people with mental illness helps remove the stigma from those suffering.
According to Statistics Canada figures released this month, people with mental health-related disabilities are more than twice as likely to be assaulted compared to the general population.
Of the about one million Canadians over the age of 15 who suffer from mental health issues, 40,000 have been violently robbed or assaulted in the past year.
Seven per cent of women with mental health issues were sexually assaulted – more than double the number of women in the general population.
And the trouble doesn’t end there: after being assaulted, only 22 per cent of those with mental health issues went to the police for help, compared to 31 per cent of the general population. Statistics Canada said that’s likely because those with mental health issues are twice as likely to view police in a negative light.
Dr. Sandy Simpson, the chief of forensic psychiatry at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, added a further observation, that the victims’ fear of police creates a perpetuating cycle of poor police response.
“We know that recent [violence] can increase people’s fearfulness, so they’re more likely to respond aggressively [to police],” Simpson told Black Press Media by phone. “It makes them feel less safe and more likely to have to defend themselves as well.”
Simpson said he hoped homegrown data would help change the public’s perception of mental health issues as dangerous or unstable.
“Is there a risk of violent behaviour associated with mental illness? Yes there is. But the rates of victimization are much higher.”
Mental illness often come hand-in-hand with other issues, like binge drinking and heavy drug use, he added, which by themselves can make people more aggressive. Statistics Canada figures show 15 per cent of people with mental illness used drugs, compared to six per cent of those without.
The image of people with mental illness as perpetrators, rather than victims, is often perpetuated in the media, Simpson said.
“High profile-cases [of dangerous offenders] that get extensively reported re-enforce and drive home that message,” he said. “It’s an understandable distortion in the public mind.”
Mental health awareness campaigns in recent years have helped remove the stigma, he said, even if the poster children for those campaigns are more clean-cut and meant to appeal to a wider audience.
“The general campaign did extend in the public’s mind to people who had done grievous things when they were unwell,” said Simpson.
“People do get that these are treatable diseases. Violence can be a complication of an illness, and you can’t punish an illness.”