Luka Magnotta, Schizophrenia, and the public’s perception of violence

It appears that Luka Magnotta’s lawyer will be arguing that his client is not criminally responsible in the murder and dismemberment of Lin Jun because he is suffering from Schizophrenia. I will wait until the evidence gets out before commenting on the specific case but since next week is Mental Illness Awareness Week I thought it would be a good time to address the question of dangerosity and the public’s perception of mental illness.

Schizophrenia is a serious illness that affects a person’s thoughts, perceptions and emotions. As such, it can have nearly as many manifestations as there are people suffering from it. A person’s upbringing and personality before the onset of the illness will interact with the biological effects of the disease to a point where it is hard to describe in a single sentence. Schizophrenia has many faces.

Symptoms include delusional beliefs, perceptual distortions (hallucinations), social withdrawal, and disorganized speech and/or behaviour.

Let’s look at the first two – delusions and hallucinations. Here are a few examples of delusions: people might believe they are emitting a foul odour that is causing others to get off the bus after they get on, they might believe they are the heir of a king and will eventually ascend to the throne, or they might feel their thoughts are being picked up by TV stations and being broadcast for all to hear.

You can imagine the impact of these beliefs on a person’s emotional state. If I believed the first, I would spend all day washing and avoiding public transit. If I couldn’t, I would feel intense shame on the bus. If I believed the second, I would be walking on air and wouldn’t feel any need to look for work. If I believed the third, I would be living in complete terror and shame.

Hallucinations usually take the form of hearing voices. These voices are usually consistent with the delusions. For example a person may hear a voice saying, “You stink,” or, “You are a loser.” Here again you can imagine the impact on a person’s emotional state when this happens.

It is important to realize that Schizophrenia is not caused by bad parenting or traumatic experiences. It is a brain illness just like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. No one chooses these illnesses. Schizophrenia also represents a small proportion of mental illnesses. It strikes about one half to one percent of the population as opposed to over 10 percent for depression or anxiety disorders. Nevertheless its impact is extreme.

If we return to our examples of delusions, how would they affect my behaviour? Would I act violently? Well, rarely. After all most delusions affect how a person feels about him or herself. This is why the risk of suicide for a person with the illness is 100 TIMES higher than in the general population! Clearly the risk is to the person far more than to others.

There does appear to be a small increase in the risk of dangerous behaviour as a result of the disease although the research remains somewhat ambiguous. But the fact remains that the risk of violent behaviour for someone with a substance abuse problem or with a personality disorder is far greater. Yet we don’t shun such individuals as much as we shun the mentally ill. In fact, because of the social isolation and odd behaviour, they are far more likely to be VICTIMS of crimes.

Whether Luka Magnotta was in control of his mind when he committed his atrocities remains a question for the courts to decide. Unfortunately, Schizophrenia will be on trial as much as he will. Because of high profile cases such as this one, the mentally ill all get tarred with the same brush.

This is simply not fair. A mother with a son who hides in his basement refusing all treatment, or a young woman alone and scared in her apartment believing she is the subject of a mind-control experiment, deserve our understanding and help.

For a disease with such an impact, Schizophrenia research funding is pitiful. Odd behaviour just doesn’t get us to cough up money as much as does a four year old with no hair. Why should I get support if my brain develops cancer but not if it develops another disease that affects my thoughts and behaviour? Both illnesses are found in the same organ.

As part of the ongoing effort to understand and destigmatize mental illness there will be a walk this coming Sunday, October 5th in Phillips Square in Montreal. For more info, visit Montreal Walks for Mental Health. Come say hi. I will be there.

Tagged as , .

Posted in Mental health.

Posted on 30 Sep 2014

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


2 comments to Luka Magnotta, Schizophrenia, and the public’s perception of violence

  1. Chantal Roby
    On Oct 3rd 2014 at 11:24

    Thank you so much Dr Zacchia for bringing some light on the subject. Too often criminal behaviors are explained by mental illnesses such as in the case of Luka Magnotta or Guy Turcotte. It is unfortunate since it will contribute to stigmatize people who suffer from mental illnesses. Those people are indeed more at risk to become victims rather than offenders. Hope to see you on October 5. Regards,

  2. lori goodhand
    On Oct 3rd 2014 at 21:39

    Thank you Camillo for a sensitive and insightful article that invites us to examine our attitudes towards people living with mental illnesses. It is your constant commitment to education through this blog and your involvement as an expert for Montreal Walks for Mental Health that helps me believe we can create a society that is compassionate and just for people living with mental illness. Join us this Sunday in Phillips Square at 11:00.