Bipolar does not equal dangerous

I’ve been thinking about this post since the incident where a bipolar man took hostages at Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign office. And I have also been thinking about this post since Britney Spears’ police interaction over the custody of her kids last week. But it wasn’t until Just Me at Master of Irony wrote a post about all the Google Search referrals to her site looking for information on whether people with bipolar were dangerous that I wrote this post.

In the reportage of the Clinton and Spears incidents, the word bipolar was bandied about without any discussion of what the disorder means, or how it affects your behavior. Truth is, bipolar disorder is a disease that affects the hormone and chemical levels of your brain— much like diabetes is a disease that affects the hormone and chemical levels of your digestive system. It’s characterized by swings in mood between mania and depression, and like diabetes, it can be controlled by medication so that your moods stay stable. Some people who have bipolar disorder, but not all, have mania that is accompanied by psychosis and delusions, meaning that the person doesn’t experience what is going on around them the same way everyone else is– they are hearing and seeing different things from what’s real. Some of the people who have psychosis can become violent, because they are so mentally confused. When someone with tendencies to psychotic manias is taking their medication, however, they are not any more prone to violence than anyone else.

In the rush to be first with a story, the press nonetheless likes to include a cause for violence–whenever someone committing a crime or a violent act happens to have been diagnosed with a mental illness, the diagnosis is trumpeted as the be all, end all. There is no attempt in the initial reporting to discover and discuss the reasons the violent actor himself gave, much less what reasons were given by family or witnesses. There is no initial report (even if there was any investigation) as to what stresses were occurring in that person’s life at the time. And follow up reporting tends to pay these explorations and explanations short shrift, regardless of the fact that far fewer are watching the follow up report. Many, many folks have already shifted their attention to the newest disaster.

The fact is, there are plenty of people who aren’t mentally ill who are dangerous, plenty of people who aren’t mentally ill who are violent. And to me, it’s scarier that these “normal” people acted violently, because unlike the mentally ill violent person, who invariably was unmedicated at the time of the incident, these people were in possession of their normal faculties. Their brain chemistry was not telling them different things about what was going on around them than what was real. Rather, these normal yet violent people possessed their full reason, and yet decided that violence was the solution.

There are a number of studies about what proportion of the violent offender population is mentally ill. In enacting a 2004 law for treatment of the mentally ill, it was found that somewhat over 20% of juvenile violent offenders were mentally ill. Let’s do the math– that means that 80% of the juvenile violent offenders were NORMAL. In another statistic, 20% of the people in Connecticut state prisons were mentally ill — that means that again, 80% of the people committing crimes were SANE when they committed their crimes. In another paper, it was found that 1000 of 16,000 murders were due to violence as a result of untreated bipolar or schizophrenia. That means 15,000 people were murdered by sane people. These sane, normal people committed these acts, contrasted with the significantly smaller proportion of mentally ill violent actors– but at least the mentally ill folks have a chance of avoiding the violence, if they are properly medicated. While that is a big if, taking a pill is a miracle contrasted with the mental calculus that these “normal” people performed before enacting violence.

I don’t mean in anyvway to say that people with bipolar will never be violent– they can be, under particular circumstances. If their disease includes paranoid, delusional, or psychotic features to their mania (and not every case does), and if their mania remains uncontrolled by medication for a long enough period of time to allow the paranoia/delusion/psychosis to get into full swing, then yes, bipolars can be violent. However, someone who is bipolar with these features who is properly medicated is less likely to be violent than another, “normal” person, given the statistics referenced above.

On a meta level, what makes me sad is that the media never attempts to discern the cause of any of the violence committed by sane and mentally ill persons, much less try to do something about analyzing the causes and starting a societal discussion about how to stop it. I have a suggestion for a place to start– stop looking for easy answers outside yourself, and look at whether you were generally kind to people in your life. If you didn’t do anything by action or inaction, by malignance or negligence, to have caused or contributed to damaging someone’s heart and mind, then go on back to your knee jerk assumption that all criminals are “crazy.”

Otherwise, volunteer at your local prison, donate some books to their library, teach someone to read, or let the county work-release program or misdemeanor/drug court community service come paint your business’s fence. Give those folks a chance to perform a different mental calculus. And, yeah, vote for health care reform, so those violent mentally ill folks can afford their medications. (And Head Start, and adequate public school funding, and a negative income tax, and subsidies for affordable housing, and de-leaded housing stock, and a thousand other things that form the “nurture” background against which those mental calculations are performed.)

Here’s another angle on the subject.

(Climbs off soapbox.)


15 thoughts on “Bipolar does not equal dangerous

  1. Cranky

    Not a soapbox, just a statement of truth. The news HAS to make everything into a 10 second sound bite, so the only theing they broadcast is the bare minimun of the “facts”. Frustrating, just frustrating that the rest of the story is rarely ever known.

  2. Cricket

    I couldn’t agree more.

    On a personal level, I was at a party and involved in a group conversation a few weeks ago; I admitted that I am bipolar, a well controlled bipolar. However, it was as if everything I said previously slid into a black hole. I suddenly lost all credibility. I know I am more sane and more self-knowing than any of them because of the work I do, however I felt shoved on the short bus.

    Sane people are over-rated, especially in their own minds. I wish the media would bite on that one.

  3. mrsgatt

    I missed this yesterday, but this is good stuff. I get so upset about this generalization that I’m not even going to elaborate here. The fact of the matter that most people with a mental illness are just out living their lives quietly, trying to do the best that they can just like everybody else. They are your neighbors, your teachers, your doctors, your lawyers, your grocery clerks….

  4. CTJen

    I’m glad you (and just me) have done this post. My DH is one of those Bipolars with psychotic/delusional mania, but he has never EVER been violent. Every person is different, and so is every case of mental illness.

    Your analogy to diabetes is a good one–I’ve used it myself in describing my DH’s bipolar to my family and in trying to help HIM to accept his bipolar. While there is a stigma out there like the one Cricket experienced, there can be an inner stigma, too. *sigh*

    And you’re right about the media. They suck suck suck and will sensationalize ANYthing and everything.

    So get back up on that soap box. I’ll stand next to you and maybe if we shout loud enough, someone will hear and listen and things will change.

  5. michael golch

    No,you are not on A soap Box,unfortunally you are preaching to the choir,Those of us who are bipolar do know what is going on in our heads.
    Yes the media does get it wrong when they take a few people out of control and make it look like all sufferes of a mental healthy desease are the same.In most cases the sufffer is onlt a threat to themselves.At least it is in my case.My problems started when I was in the US Air Force,that is where my drinkng and the ups and downs started at first I was labeled Manic/depressive which has now been named Bipolar. On the really down side is where I get susicidal,on the up side I’m way too happy.
    As far as the other comments,Well CTJEN if you climb on that box so will I,my problems do involve other problems as well,but those are under control as well as the fact that I have finally found soberiety finally. The drinking that started in the srevice and the need I felt to kill myself is finally under control.
    My first susicide attempt was when I was on a temp. Duty Assignment(TDY) that was in the guiese of over doing the drinking of Seagrams 7. there were many other drinking episodes were I got stupid with drinking anddriveing fortunaly for me I never hurt any one else except myself in crashes. I have been sober many times this is the longest I have been sober,I have now been sober since 12/17/1990.
    Thank you for shareing your remakes about Bipolar.God Bless,Mike Golch

  6. Angelina

    Hey, your soapbox is my soapbox too. If I try to pitch an article to a magazine about this very point could I name you as a legal consultant (or an anonymous contact?)? This does need to get out. Those are some pretty telling statistics. It makes me so angry that people are always automatically more afraid of the person with the mental illness.

    I know that as a mentally ill person myself I have some bias here, but I can’t help but observe that most of the people I admire and love the most in this world are clinically mentally ill.

    Crazy people rock!

    (That makes me sound like I’m still in high school.)

  7. Just Me

    I’m just checking in quickly tonight at a motel near my doctor. Can’t comment fully but AWESOME.

    Another good example is that man who was shot and killed on a plane about a year when he got paranoid and kind of freaked out and his wife was screaming that he was an unmedicated bipolar while they shot him. I know when I flew twice since then I’ve felt really weird carrying my tell-tale lithium.

    For the record too, I’m a severe BPI (the kind with paranoia, etc although I mainly avoid delusions/hallucinations) and have never been violent other than verbally.

  8. Emily

    This is an excellent post. It is putting your head in the sand to say that bipolars are never violent, but it isn’t common. People with mental illness are more likely to be victoms of acts of violence than to commit them. I saw a talk on C-SPAN the other day by an expert on terrorism, and he said that terrorists are not mentally ill. In fact, terrorist groups will not recruit people that they see as unstable. I’m sure the most dangerous group in our society is males under 30. Let’s put them all on Haldol!

  9. nyjlm


    the whole statistics thing is crazy. Like drs claiming that co-sleeping is dangerous, when the fact is that just as many SIDS deaths occur in the supposedly safe *crib*. And if you subtract deaths that occured in unsafe co-sleeping situations (parents on drugs or alcohol, sleeping on a couch) then safe co-sleeping actually is protective against SIDS.

    oops, my own soapbox!

  10. ApK

    Wonderful post – you touched on so many angles with informative grace…thank you for soapboxing about such an important and interesting topic!

  11. Michelle

    I am heartbroken about a dear friend and man who is bipolar and in recovery for other matters. He refuses medication of any kind and is convinced he can cure himself with vitamins. His mania became a threat to my well being so I had to get away but there is a man in there that is so worth while if not too set in his ways. He believes he could have been…because he is a bit on in years but i see he has something to offer if only this illness were managed. He had bad experiences years past with treatment and non treatment or misdiagnosis. I wish there were something I could do to convince him to try the newer treatments. I miss the good parts I remember of him gobbled up by something I don’t understand and began to hurt me.


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