How should we punish individuals with mental illness?

Back in the summer of 2011 a man named Anders Behring Breivik carried out an attack by bombing government buildings in Oslo, resulting in 8 deaths, then went into a youth camp posing as a police officer and killed 69, mostly teenagers. A further 151 people were left injured. On the 29th November 2011 however, he was declared by psychiatrists as insane, and was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia (BBC, 2011). This means he is more likely to go to a psychiatric ward than a prison, which caused a lot of objection and uproar with many people. But is this right, and is this diagnosis doing justice to the families left with a missing mother, father or sibling? I believe it does, and is the best thing for us to do as a society, as I will explain in the rest of my blog.
Originally, from a set of rules called the M’Nachten rules the legal definition of insanity meant a criminal was unable to tell whether right from wrong at the time of the offence, which occurs in only 1% of cases, and is successful in only 0.3% of times (BBC, 2011). A common argument is that many criminals will fake insanity to get off lightly (I presume people are gaining this assumption from Miloš Forman’s masterpiece ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’), but this statistic proves that not only does it occur extremely rarely, it is also quite unlikely that the psychiatrists are convinced. It is also the most shocking crimes that make the front pages, where there is a higher chance of mental illness being involved, which is why it occurs a lot less than most people think.
Schizophrenia is also a very devastating condition for those who have it. The suicide rate amongst individuals with schizophrenia is at 10%, which means they are at more risk of being a danger to themselves than other people (Roy, 1986). It has also been found there is a strong genetic component towards schizophrenia as having a first degree relative with schizophrenia leaves a 6.5% concordance rate, whereas having a monozygotic twin leaves a 40% concordance rate, meaning the individuals with it can often not help or control their behaviour (Picchioni & Murray, 2007). Of course, I believe these individuals should be moved to a place where they can not harm anyone else, but I believe prison to be a place to punish people, but more importantly rehabilitate people, as that is what is really going to make where we live a better place. For example, a study found that very little violent crime (consistently below 10%) is attributed to schizophrenia, and substance abuse puts individuals at a much higher risk (Walsh, Buchanan, & Fahy, 2002). We need to make sure we take care of individuals with schizophrenia so we can understand it as best as possible, and trying to prevent crimes like we saw in Norway happening again, and that is what the aim of sending a person like Anders Behring Breivik to an institution achieves.


BBC. (2011, November 29). Norway massacre: Breivik declared insane. Retrieved March 2012, 25, from BBC Online:
BBC. (2011, November 29). Who, What, Why: How do you assess a killer’s mental health? Retrieved March 25, 2012, from BBC:
Picchioni, M. M., & Murray, R. H. (2007). Schizophrenia. BMJ , (335) (7610) 91–95.
Roy, A. (1986). Depression, attempted suicide, and suicide in patients with chronic schizophrenia. Psychiatric Clinics of North America , (9) (1) 193-206).
Walsh, E., Buchanan, A., & Fahy, T. (2002). Violence and schizophrenia: examining the evidence. The British Journal of Psychiatry , (180) 490-495.


About alecdes

Psychology Student at Bangor University, host of 'It's All In Your Head' on StormFM.
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10 Responses to How should we punish individuals with mental illness?

  1. psud46 says:

    I like how you have highlighted the issues of difficulty in assessing mental illness in the courtroom. The unfortunate consequences of cases such as Anders Breivik and his infamy however seem to result in increased discrimination against the violent schizophrenic stereotype. Although you highlight that very little crime can be attributed to schizophrenia, Phelan (2000) has demonstrated that those who described a mentally ill patient as being violent have over doubled in the past half century.

    A similar case, which also highlights the issue of punishing the mentally ill, is that of Gary McKinnon*. He is currently facing extradition to the USA for hacking NASA’s computers. However, Baron-Cohen, an international authority on research regarding the autistic spectrum, has diagnosed the man as having Aspergers, whilst other practitioners have diagnosed major depressive disorder.

    The Telegraph report is quoted as saying ‘And his supporters say he acted through “naïvety” as a result of his Aspergers syndrome – a form of autism – and should not be considered a criminal.’ However, is this really adequate for an individual to avoid punishment for hacking into the computers of the world’s largest space station?


  2. I thought this was a really great blog, with some interesting points.
    Of course it may be upsetting for a victim’s family members to not see someone punished, but what people don’t realise is that when someone is hospitalised with a mental illness after committing a crime like this, they are likely to stay in there for the rest of their lives.
    I completely agree with you that prison should be for rehabilitation, and it would not be possible for someone who is mentally ill to be rehabilitated in prison. Surely they need to be somewhere where people who know what they’re doing can help them no longer be a danger to society.
    What’s bad is that in America people with mental illnesses who commit crimes are 3x more likely to end up institutionalised than hospitalised (in some states even 10x as likely), simply due to there not being enough beds in institutions.
    Pavle and his co-authors wrote that in 1995, there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 Americans. In 2005, there was one for every 3,000 Americans. Also that “There are forms of treatment that don’t necessitate hospitalization,”
    I don’t feel that the situation where a mentally ill person is institutionalised would benefit anyone: not the family of the victim, not the offender, not the public.

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  5. psucb2 says:

    i loved this blog! Although i completely agree with you that this sort of behaviour can lead to people increasing stereotypes against those with a mental illness, and i do believe that these people should not be subjected to prison but to get help. However, you only discuss those with the more serious mental illnesses and crimes. There are many people with less serious crimes and illnesses who recieve treatment then are released, which on the surface sounds ideal and is what society aims for, and what the law was created to do. However, much research has be done, one in particular by Baillargeon et all which shows that people with mental disorders, once convicted are 3.3x more likely to have at least three further convictions compared with those who dont have a disorder of any kind.

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  8. fraseral says:

    This was a very interesting blog! firstly because I live very close to broadmoor psychiatric hospital. Although defined as a hospital and not a prison it clearly is allot more than that, considering its surrounded by large walls, barbed wire and they test the siren every Monday at 10 in the surrounding area. But they are not considered prisoners they are mentally ill. This gives them a certain amount of freedom that prisoners don’t have, my dad once played football against some of the patients. But is this right that they have these freedoms? although they are mentally ill how responsible are they for their crimes? obviously enough to warrant being locked up, but if their patients and not criminals will they ever be ‘better’, or will their sentence ever be up.

    The other reason is the new circumstances in Behring Breivik’s case. Since this blog another psychiatrist has declared him as legally sane. Now questioning whether he is criminally responsible for his crimes or not. Although he says he is sane and is doing it for his own reasons, is it possible that this is part of his illness? This leads to an interesting catch 22 situation and can really make us question how we deal with mental illness when it comes to criminal cases.

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  10. psuc3d says:

    Hello! I really enjoyed reading your blog. This is a topic matter extremely close to my heart. Your blog was very interesting and I agreed with many (if not all) of the points you made. What I would like to add is that, in my opinion/experience, when serious crimes happen the victims and/or their family are left with some sort of loss or damage and because of this they feel that there has been an injustice and so someone somewhere should pay in order for their to be balance. At a time of pain, loss or grief it is almost impossible to accept that it may have just been hugely unfortunate luck. That it may have been some slight abnormality in someone’s brain that has cause this huge devastation is hard to understand. But like you said, in some cases this is what has happened and all we as a society can do is try to learn from this and improve at preventing it in the future.

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