Is Depression Linked to Violence?

Young woman yelling at young man covering ears


It seems that every time the media runs a story about another instance of a school shooting or a murder-suicide, they also speculate that the person suffered from some sort of mental illness. Why else, after all, would they have done something so reprehensible?

But how often is this speculation actually correct?

Link Between Depression and Violence

It seems obvious that many people involved in murder-suicides, in which they kill others and then take their own lives, seem to be suffering from some sort of mental illness. In fact, a 2009 literature review appears to confirm this observation, finding that anywhere from 19 to 65 percent of people who committed murder-suicides were suffering from depression. In addition, another study found that 80 percent of the people studied had some sort of mental illness.

But despite the attention given by the media whenever a tragedy like this occurs, murder-suicides are quite rare, especially when compared to the commonality of depression and other mood disorders. And in fact, the incidence rate for murder-suicide has historically been quite low: this same literature review places it in the range of 0.2-0.3 persons per 100,000.

So although depression has been linked to murder-suicide, it's important to note that this association doesn't mean that people with depression are dangerous: most people who have depression never harm anyone. It's only in rare instances when certain risk factors—such as depression, substance abuse, the presence of another mental illness, domestic violence, bullying, etc.— come together in a certain way that a vulnerable person starts to feel as if he has no other options but to resort to violence.

Then again, more recent research suggests that there may, indeed, be a correlation between depression and violence. A 2015 study based on more than 47,000 people in Sweden showed that people diagnosed with depression are roughly three times more likely than the general population to commit violent crimes such as robbery, sexual offenses, and assault. Authors of the study emphasized, however, that the overwhelming majority of depressed people are neither violent nor criminal, and should not be stigmatized.

"One important finding was that the vast majority of depressed people were not convicted of violent crimes and that the rates ... are below those for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and considerably lower than for alcohol or drug abuse," said Seena Fazel, who led the study at the University of Oxford's psychiatry department.

Self-Harm Is More Common

The fact is that depressed people are more likely to hurt themselves, not others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the overall suicide incidence rate in the United States is 11.3 persons per 100,000, a figure that's significantly higher than the estimated incidence rate for a murder-suicide.

If you know someone who is severely depressed and is talking about wanting to hurt himself or others, it's important to take it seriously and get him the help he needs. Laws vary from state to -state, but it may be possible for you, or someone close to him, to have him involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, both for his own safety and the safety of others.

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Article Sources

  • "Suicide in the U.S.: Statistics and Prevention." National Institute of Mental Health. National Institutes of Health.

  • Eliason, Scott. "Murder-Suicide: A Review of the Recent Literature." Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 37.3 (September 2009): 371-376.