Gang violence is a not a mental illness

LAWRENCE HARMON’S Op-ed “Treating gang violence as mental illness” (Feb. 8) uses “insanity,” “quasi-controlled insanity,” and “crazy” in ways that perpetuate the myth that violence and mental illness are closely linked. Yet when clinical criteria are used, fewer than 5 percent of violent acts are attributable to persons with serious mental illness, who are more often victims than perpetrators of violence.

Yes, research by Jeremy Coid and colleagues, cited by Harmon, found high rates of psychosis among violent gang members. However, heavy alcohol use was also very common in this group — a well-established risk factor for violence. Furthermore, the suggestion that “effective medications” may ameliorate gang-related violence is entirely speculative, as there are no medications with FDA-approved use for “violence.” Violent gang members with documented psychiatric disorders deserve compassionate and effective mental health treatment — but we must also address the social, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to violent gang activity.

DR. Ronald Pies


The writer is a psychiatrist affiliated with Tufts University School of Medicine.