Does Severe Mental Illness Cause People to Commit Crimes?

Mental Health Court

Does Severe Mental Illness Cause People to Commit Crimes?

The brief answer is that for the vast majority of criminal offenders the answer is “no.”


  • For the vast majority of criminal offenders, even those with major mental illness, research suggests the answer is no (see Skeem et al., 2014; Peterson et al., 2014; Peterson, Skeem, & Manchak, 2011). Only a relatively small percentage of crimes are  directly motivated by psychiatric symptoms, suggesting that mental health treatment  alone (without focus on criminogenic needs) may do little to impact overall recidivism rates.
  • Current research suggests that risk reduction efforts among mentally ill offenders should target criminogenic needs common to all criminals (e.g., antisocial patterns, procriminal attitudes) rather than solely focusing on mental health factors. Psychiatric symptoms are simply not good predictors of new offenses.
  • Mentally ill offenders are likely to benefit from the same kinds of interventions that reduce recidivism for offenders without a mental illness, such those derived from models of effective correctional rehabilitation.

This lack of attention to criminogenic risk factors in mental health courts has been criticized by many social scientists in recent years. Although no one advocates for abandoning clinical treatment in mental health courts, many call for increased efforts at targeting criminogenic needs in treatment plans.


Peterson, J., Skeem, J., & Manchak, S. (2011). If you want to know, consider asking: How likely is it that patients will hurt themselves in the future? Psychological Assessment, 23, 626-634. doi:10.1037/a0022971

Peterson, J.K., Skeem, J., Kennealy, P., & Bray, B. (2014). How often and how consistently do symptoms directly precede criminal behavior among offenders with mental illness? Law and Human Behavior, 38, 439-449. DOI: 10.1037/lhb0000075

Skeem, J.L., Winter, E., Kennealy, P.J., Louden, J.E., & Tatar, J.R. (2014). Offenders with mental illness have criminogenic needs, too: Toward recidivism reduction. Law and Human Behavior, 38, 212-224. DOI: 10.1037/lhb0000054