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Voices: I’m a psychologist – and this is the truth about criminals and mental health

Daniel Khalife’s mum has said that her son “is not living in reality” and “needs to seek mental health support”. I don’t know whether that is true or not in his case, but as a psychologist, I am used to people trying to explain crime and bad behaviour by blaming mental health and undiagnosed psychiatric disorders.

I often hear, “there must be something wrong with him”, or, “it’s not their fault they are like this, it’s their mental health”, or even, “they are clearly not in the right mind to be committing these acts”.

But why do we find it easier to frame any violent person or criminal as mentally ill? Why is it so hard to accept that they might be making active, considered choices – even if those choices seem hideous and heinous? Why do we excuse so many perpetrators as “disordered” and “sick”?

Let me tell you: it’s because we don’t want to believe that people are capable of such violence and destruction – let alone someone we care about. Let alone our children. We certainly don’t want to believe that our loved ones are capable of murder, abuse, violence or terrorism.

We want it to be an illness. A problem that can be solved. It makes their behaviour “treatable” and “changeable”. It means they can be controlled – and others can be protected.

We also speak about people in this way to “other” them. We don’t want them to be part of our communities. The last thing we want is to be “like them”. So, we intentionally distance ourselves – and research shows that when we do that, we don’t have as much empathy for them, either. We don’t relate to them – we can’t. They’re “different”. We convince ourselves that we could never be like them (or commit the same acts as them).

The trouble is, this excuses them. I once spoke to the head detective of a homicide team who said that every single murderer she had ever interviewed was “clearly schizophrenic”.

“How could you possibly reach that conclusion?” I asked her.

“Because otherwise they wouldn’t kill people! They are clearly psychotic,” she replied, as if I was a bit stupid.

I had to play devil’s advocate. “But what if they are not?” I said. “Maybe you just want to believe that? Maybe they had other motivations to kill? Maybe they simply wanted to kill someone – and enjoyed their crime? Maybe they thought it through and made a conscious decision?”

She replied with the most predictable argument possible: “No chance, people who do that are not normal! They have to have something wrong with them!”

But is that really so? Do we really believe that everyone who commits crime is mentally unwell?

I don’t think that’s possible, do you? And if you need convincing, well – just look at the fact that we live in a largely violent society, filled with murder, war, sexual violence, power and control.

We seek out harm as entertainment, too. Why else would our favourite movies contain hundreds of murders, rapes and fights? Our favourite video games have us carrying out violent killings; our favourite books are often a tale of a power-struggle in which one person fights or kills someone else to become the hero.

We sell toy guns and weapons to small children; our favourite artists sing and rap about killing and abusing people. We have a broken justice system, in which rapists and abusers often get away with it. We see our world leaders actively promoting war and conflict; bombing and killing innocent civilians in other countries.

The problem with assuming that criminals are “sick” and “need treatment” to make them “right” again is that it stops us from focusing on rooting out the violence that is all around us. It helps us sit back and stop taking responsibility.

Too often, prisoners are “diagnosed” with mental health conditions without proper psychiatric testing, proof or scans. Sometimes it is little more than subjective opinion, the result of someone armed with a questionnaire.

Maybe that’s why we rarely see true “rehabilitation” of these offenders. If we are so busy claiming they have poor mental health instead of paying attention to the thoughts, experiences and influences that lead to their decisions to harm others, we won’t be able to make the right interventions.

So, if you are reading this and you believe that criminals “must have a mental health issue”, answer these two questions for me first:

1. If psychiatric disorders are to blame for so much violent offending, why do millions of people with the very same diagnoses never commit a single crime in their lives?

2. Psychiatric disorders are more likely to be diagnosed in women than men – so why don’t women commit much more violent crime?

It’s time to put our comfort aside and think more critically about the issue... yes, even if it gives us nightmares.

Dr Jessica Taylor is a Sunday Times Bestselling author, chartered psychologist and CEO of VictimFocus