Mental Health and Crime: What Makes a Criminal? – By Raneesha De Silva
Imagine a man with torn clothes and a really poor hygiene is roaming the streets while mumbling to himself. What is the first thought that crosses your mind in a split second? If I am to speculate, it might take the lines of, “He must be crazy. Most probably violent too. I better move as far away from him as possible”.
How true is this correlation? Does the mentally-ill population have a high tendency to commit crime? Is criminal behaviour always a product of mental illness?
A 2017 study carried out at the Welikada prison challenged such stigma, stereotype and misconception. The study results revealed that there is no statistically significant relationship between specific types of crimes and mental disorders. Further analysis however disclosed that there is a noticeable sample of convicts diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression.
Does this mean that such individuals have a higher tendency to commit crime?
Simply put, this relationship could be justified based on disorder symptoms. As individuals with schizophrenia may lose sense of reality due to delusions and hallucinations, there is a high tendency for such individuals to commit more crimes, especially homicide. As with depression, low self-worth and self-esteem, hopelessness and loneliness could be speculated to enhance criminal tendencies in depressed individuals.
Yet, this does not in any way mean that all individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression are criminals. This relationship is highly influenced by many socio-economic factors.
Which demographic factors contribute to criminal behaviour and how?
The said research has also explored the influence of socio-economic factors. This article will be presenting a few of those selected demographic characteristics such as the age, marital and parental status, previous-conviction status, educational level and previous employment.
According to this study findings, in Sri Lanka criminal population, there is a high tendency in:
- Committing crimes later in their lives in the age range of 41-50 years.
- Married offenders with children committing fewer crimes.
- Drug convicts being repeat offenders.
- Educational level of the majority of participants being less than G.C.E. (O/L).
- Unskilled workers and those who are unemployed.
In an attempt to understand these findings, the author speculates that;
In the context of repeat offenders, the influence and effects of substance addiction could have played a role not only as a motivator for drug abuse, but also due to lack of support and resources for rehabilitation. As such petty crimes aren’t subjected to a serious penalty, they have more opportunity to engage in similar activities once released. It also could be speculated that selling drugs is a main source of income for such offenders in addition to their personal use. Therefore, when contemplating income against the penalty, these offenders may have chosen to continue illegal activities after weighing its pros and cons.
Considering the literacy level, a significant majority of offenders which make up of the study sample have less than G. C. E. (O/L) education level leading to unemployment and unskilled jobs. This finding clearly demonstrates the contribution of low-level education in criminal behaviour.
Marriage has demonstrated to be a protective factor as single people seemingly have committed more crime. This could be because a single person has less personal and social responsibilities towards other individuals and themselves, leaving more opportunities to be engaged in criminal behaviour with fewer restrictions. Just as marital status reduces criminal tendencies, so has parental status; as offenders with children tend to commit fewer crimes due to personal and social responsibilities expected by them as a parent.
In contrast to other countries where individuals commit more crime during their early to late twenties, the influence of the collectivist society in Sri Lanka has seemingly influenced people to be restricted by social norms, responsibilities and roles. Therefore, there is an interesting observation in the Sri Lanka criminal population where a majority of the offenders are aged between 41-50 years.
After substantial consideration of multiple variables as above, it is not justifiable to further assume that mental status of an offender is the sole causal factor in crime or vice versa. Hence, it is the author’s professional opinion that more resources should be allocated to manage risk factors such as low education level, substance-abuse behaviour and unemployment. In a nation where rehabilitation facilities surpass correctional facilities, we can then hope for a better tomorrow.