People with bipolar no more likely to be violent than anyone else

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A new study has suggested that people with severe mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than those in good mental health, unless they abuse drugs or alcohol.

The study was carried out by Oxford University and involved 3,700 people in Sweden who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder or manic depression as it is also called is characterised by extreme mood swings, sometimes accompanied by bizarre behaviour.

Many people are still afraid of people with mental health problems and there are commonly held views that people with mental health problems are more likely to be violent.

“It is probably more dangerous walking outside a pub on a late night than walking outside a hospital where patients have been released” Dr Seena Fazel, a consultant forensic psychiatrist who led the study told the BBC.

The researchers compared the experiences of patients with bipolar disorder with around 4,000 brothers and sisters of people with the disorder and around 37,000 people from the general population.

The main finding was that violent behaviour was just as common people who did not have bipolar but who abused drugs and alcohol as it was in people with bipolar who abused drugs and alcohol.

“Most of the relationship between violent crime and serious mental illness can be explained by alcohol and substance abuse” said Dr Fazel. “That tends to be the thing that mediates the link between violence and the illness.”

However, the study also found that people with bipolar disorder were 10 times more likely to resort to drugs and alcohol than the general population, probably as a way of self medicating. Previous studies have also confirmed this.

The BBC also quotes Paul Farmer, the Chief Executive of the charity Mind as saying “The link between mental illness and violence is often grossly exaggerated when in fact people with mental health problems are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators…this kind of stigma damages lives”.

The Chief Executive of the charity Sane told the BBC that the research overlooked the seriousness of severe mental illness.

“We accept that alcohol and drug abuse can exacerbate the more acute symptoms and that such abuse is more widely responsible for criminal acts.

“We also accept that the majority of people with mental illness are never violent and the chances of a member of the public being attacked at random extremely rare.

“However, we do not believe it is helpful to underplay the extreme pain, paranoia and denial of symptoms such as command voices which those with psychosis can experience and which may trigger damaging behaviour.”

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