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Why Linking Mental Illness With Violence Is ‘Fundamentally Wrong’

Drawing "baseless" links between mental illness and violence can have damaging impacts on the millions of Australians living with complex disorders, experts have warned. 

As news circulated of the fatal stabbing attack in Sydney's CBD on Tuesday, SANE Australia and Everymind were among the mental health groups calling on safe and responsible reporting of the facts.

This was reiterated on Wednesday when NSW Police confirmed the alleged offender, Mert Ney, had a history of "mental health issues", among others, including malicious damage and domestic violence described as "low level".

Ney, 20 years old from Marayong in western Sydney, was arrested after a woman was killed and another injured on Tuesday.

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said he had recently "self-admitted himself to a facility following a medical issue", which prompted mental health assessments. He would not confirm media reports Key absconded from a mental health facility, but when pressed, said "all evidence points to that". 

"The mental health consideration, will of course, occur through the judicial process," he said.

"But for [my purposes], they're a criminal first and the issue around mental health is a distant second."

Mert Ney is detained by police in Sydney on Tuesday. Photo: AAP

It comes weeks after calls for an urgent review of the state's mental health system, after it emerged a young woman -- who was arrested over the gruesome murder of her mother -- had appeared in court several times but was released on the grounds she was mentally ill.

READ MORE: What We Know About The Accused Sydney Stabber Mert Ney

Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia, said such acts of alleged violence by people with mental illness are "incredibly rare".

"We always need to report incidents responsibly and not jump to conclusions before knowing the facts," Heath told 10 daily. 

"We also need to know that even when there is a link between violent acts and mental illness, that this is very much the exception."

The term 'mental illness' covers a range of psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and complex mood disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Research has found no factual link between mental illness and violence against others -- a "stereotype" Heath said is perpetuated across all forms of media.

In fact, people living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence themselves. Rates of violence against those with mental illness -- including homicide, suicide and self-harm -- are much higher than for the general population, especially for those with complex disorders and psychotic illnesses.

"There is a moderately increased risk, but those numbers are in very rare circumstances," Heath said.

He said these instances usually occur among people with psychotic illness linked to substance or alcohol abuse, or not receiving proper treatment.

"To give the impression that having mental illness more often than not leads to violence is just fundamentally wrong," he said.

Overseas, similar sentiments reached "disturbing" levels in the aftermath of two deadly shootings in the U.S. that claimed the lives of at least 31 people.

Responding to the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald Trump claimed "hatred and mental illness pulls the trigger, not the gun". His response to the Parkland shooting in 2018, which claimed the lives of 17 people, including 14 students, was also quick to assign blame to mental illness.

“I don’t want mentally ill people to be having guns. Take the guns first, go through due process second,” Trump said at the time.

President Trump called for mental health reform in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Getty

In reality, research has found less than four percent of violent acts in the U.S. are perpetrated by those diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

Heath acknowledged Australian political leaders are by and large "very responsible", but said Trump's comments were "particularly disturbing".

"In that case, the last thing we want to do is avoid scapegoating mental illness for what is a failure to address critical issues around gun control," he said. 

"These statements reinforce a notion that is not based in fact., and they help absolutely no one." 

READ MORE: It's Thanks To Tight Gun Laws That People With Milk Crates Can Be Heroes

Health experts warn inaccurate portrayals of violent acts can be damaging for those with complex mental health issues, who may avoid seeking help.

"I've seen people have very visceral negative reactions," Heath said.

'Striking the balance on this is absolutely essential, both for those living with complex disorders and also for young people who may be experiencing symptoms."

Photo: Getty Images

Moving forward, Heath acknowledged early diagnosis and better treatment was needed for those with complex mental health issues -- particularly those who have been discharged from mental health facilities or emergency departments.

"There has been work being done in this area, but we have a long way to go," said.

READ MORE: Mental Health 'The Cinderella' Of Australian Medical Care, Expert Warns 

READ MORE: If You're Struggling With Mental Health, I Am With You In The Dark

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

If you need help in a crisis, or just need someone to talk to, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au