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July 5, 2017



05 July 2017

The SA Federation for Mental Health was recently alerted to a column published by an online news agency, which seemed to link South Africa’s high crime rates with mental illness. While we commemorate Psychosocial Disability Awareness month during the month of July, SAFMH feels it is important to address these misconceptions and their potential negative consequences on the lives of people living with mental health disorders.

The idea that people with mental disorders or disabilities are more prone to violence than other members of society is one of the most strongly held and harmful misconceptions that still exists in our society, and one that is often enforced by media reporting. It is important to recognise the potentially devastating effects that these false beliefs can have on the lives of those living with mental disorders, as it can lead to increased levels of stigma and discrimination, social exclusion and the denial of basic human rights.

The media can either contribute to the belief that mental illness contributes or leads to crime, or help to fight it, through their reporting. Throughout the years many international studies have been done on the portrayal of mental illness in the media, and how this portrayal affects public perceptions. Studies have shown that negative media reporting leads to the perception that mental illness is linked to violence, crime, unpredictability, being a danger to self or others, or that people with mental disorders are passive victims deserving of pity. 

However through positive and fair reporting the media also has the power to help shift public perceptions about mental health, and reduce stigma and discrimination.

Here is what research has found regarding the link between mental illness and violence:

  • “The combined evidence from these studies indicates that…persons with psychotic diagnoses are less likely or at least no more likely to commit violence…a history of delusions and a diagnosis of paranoia were unrelated to future violence.” - Harris, Grant T. and Marnie E. Rice. "Risk Appraisal and Management of Violent Behavior". PS 48.9 (1997): 1168- 1176.
  • "…the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses." - American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Fact Sheet: Violence and Mental Illness, Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  • "People with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime.” - Hiroeh, Urara et al. "Death by Homicide, Suicide, and Other Unnatural Causes In People With Mental Illness: A Population-Based Study". The Lancet 358.9299 (2001): 2110-2112.
  • “People with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population." - Hiday, Virginia Aldigé et al. "Criminal Victimization of Persons with Severe Mental Illness". PS 50.1 (1999): 62-68.

With these facts in mind, it is crucial that the media reports responsibly on cases involving persons with mental disorders or disabilities. Speculation, inaccurate or one sided reporting can do an incredible amount of damage and help to increase stigma and discrimination.

Trying to link South Africa’s high crime rates with mental illness or disorders such as foetal alcohol syndrome (which is not a mental illness but rather a developmental disorder), is unfounded and reckless, as it endangers the lives of those who are already vulnerable and face discrimination and abuse. SAFMH would like to encourage all members of the media to report fairly and accurately on mental health and all related factors, and to make use of tools such as the SAFMH Media Guide for Responsible Reporting on Mental Health to guide them in terms of terminology or topics they may not be sure of. Media practitioners are also encouraged to contact SAFMH if they require information, statistics or other assistance. 


The SAFMH Media Guide for Responsible Reporting on Mental Health can be accessed here.



Marthé Kotze

Programme Manager: Information & Awareness

SA Federation for Mental Health

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011 781 1852