UNIT I STUDY GUIDE
Myths and Realities
Course Learning Outcomes for Unit I
Upon completion of this unit, students should be able to:
1. Explain the correlation between crime and mental illness.
2. Identify current issues, trends, and challenges mental illness presents to the criminal justice
Chapter 1: Myths and Realities: Introduction and Scope of the Problem
Chapter 2: Abnormal Psychology Primer
More and more stories of mentally ill criminal offenders are leading the news. This is not new, as all the way
back to John Hinckley Jr., the news has shined a light on mentally ill individuals who have committed heinous
crimes. From Andrea Yates in 2001 and the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, to the Aurora, Colorado theatre
shooting and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, the news perpetuates the myth that crime and
mental illness go hand in hand (Schug & Fradella, 2015). But, is this accurate?
The criminal justice system has become part of the mental health system. With lack of funding and the closing
of mental health hospitals, many mentally ill have found themselves in jails and prisons. The largest
psychiatric facility in the United States is Riker’s Island in New York City, holding about 3,000 people (Schug
& Fradella, 2015). However, this brings victimization while in the correctional system, and ultimately, many
recidivate upon release.
This leaves us with the following question. “Does mental illness cause violence?” Schug & Fradella (2015)
answer with the following four points:
Less than 3% of violent crimes can be attributed to a person with a psychiatric illness.
The prevalence of serious mental illnesses (SMIs) in incarcerated populations is between 16%-30%.
A large segment of the population has no mental illness.
Those with SMIs may commit crimes for the same reasons those without mental illnesses do. Causes
such as peers, family violence, personal stressors, and substance abuse can affect individuals with
and without an SMI.
The effect of mental illness on violent tendencies is small, with the violence more likely to manifest
against family than a complete stranger.
Though there are some links between mental illness and crime, many who study these areas lack education
and training in criminal justice and the law (Schug & Fradella, 2015). There are, however, many disciplines
within the criminal justice field that relate to mental health, which include:
CMJ 3308, Mental Illness and Crime
The major diagnostic system used to study mental illness is the Diagnostic and
Disorder (DSM), which the American Psychiatric Association began publishingTitle
in 1952. The latest edition is
the DSM-5, published in 2013. Older DSM editions classified mental illness on five axes or dimensions, with
Axis I and Axis II containing the principal diagnoses:
Axis I: clinical disorders and conditions, other than personality disorders and intellectual disabilities
Axis II: personality and intellectual disabilities
Axis III: diagnosis for general medical conditions, such as digestive, blood, nervous, respiratory, and
digestive disorders or injuries
Axis IV: psychosocial and environmental problems, such as unemployment, homelessness, or
Axis V: global assessment of functioning (GAF) which ranges from 1 to 100
The DSM-5 has abandoned this structure and replaced it with chapters containing disorders and the traits
commonly associated with them (Schug & Fradella, 2015). Though there are criticisms and limitations of the
DSM, those working with individuals in the criminal justice system must be aware of this manual and how it
can affect not only crime overall, but also the people they work with within the system.
To become a better-informed practitioner, one must start with the concept of mental illness. Many people
struggle to define it. Think about what your definition of mental illness is. Exploring the five major historical
definitions, as outlined by Schug and Fradella (2015) will help:
mental illness as a deviation from social expectations
mental illness is what mental health professionals treat
mental illness is a subjective distress
mental illness is a label for disliked actions
mental illness is a dysfunction that causes harm
Then, there is the DSM-5 definition: “A clinically significant behavioral or psychological pattern that occurs in
an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e.,
impairment in one or more areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain,
disability, or an important loss of freedom” (American Psychological Association, 2000, p. 29). This definition
contains the word impairment that is critical to understanding mental illness. The impairment of a mental
illness must affect a person’s life in the areas of school, work, social, or family life. By classifying disorders,
the DSM is not classifying people. Disorders people have are actually what is being classified. Within the
DSM, readers will not see a bulimic, but an individual with bulimia (APA, 2000).
For centuries, people have tried to explain our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, including those that fall
outside the “normal range” of human experience. Scientists have attempted to quantify and categorize people
and their suffering. History shows that while there are successes in this area, there have also been failures.
Throughout history, people have blamed supernatural forces, religion, anatomy, environments, and peers as
the causes of mental illness. Though each of these relates to the puzzle of mental illness, science still fails to
solve the puzzle completely. Each person with a mental illness is different from another. Though there are
similar symptoms in cases, no two people with a disorder will show these symptoms the same way. No two
people will have the same cause for their symptoms. This only adds to the difficulty of defining a
Throughout the first two chapters, various legal concepts and a history review have allowed you to build a
foundation on which to base your understanding of mental illness. The definition you have come to may vary
from your peers and even from the textbook. Though this term is difficult to define, both of these chapters
have armed you with the theoretical foundation to look at mental illnesses presented throughout the rest of
the textbook and examine if the mental illness has contributed to an individual’s criminal acts (Schug &
American Psychological Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.,
text rev.). American Psychological Association.
CMJ 3308, Mental Illness and Crime
Schug, R., & Fradella, H. (2015). Mental illness and crime. Sage.
UNIT x STUDY GUIDE
The article below will give you a better grasp on why mental health and criminal justice are often related to
each other in the media.
In order to access the resource below, you must first log into the myCSU Student Portal and access the
Academic Search Complete database within the CSU Online Library.
Edwards, H. S. (2014). Dangerous cases. Time, 184(21/22), 54-59.
CMJ 3308, Mental Illness and Crime
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