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Thursday, 8 February, 2001, 00:15 GMT
Mentally ill 'less likely to kill strangers'
Mentally ill patient
Very few random killings are carried out by the mentally ill
People with mental illnesses are three times more likely to kill someone they know than a stranger.

A new study has revealed that the murder of total strangers is almost exclusively committed by young men on other males.

Christopher Clunis
Schizophrenic Christopher Clunis killed a stranger
Most of the perpetrators have some history of drug and alcohol problems.

Very few random killings are by the mentally ill.

Mental health groups hope that this will dispel public misconceptions about the high risk of random murders such as the murder of Jonathan Zito by schizophrenic Christopher Clunis.

Dr Tim Amos, a forensic psychiatrist, told the Royal College of Psychiatrists faculty meeting in Brighton, that "stranger murder" by the mentally ill is unusual.

He and his team studied the details of all people charged with homicide in England and Wales between April 1969 and March 1998.

They found people with mental health problems are more likely to kill someone they know, or even themselves, than a random stranger.

Stranger killings

They looked at details of the killers, their prior convictions and their sentences.

They also studied the psychiatric reports, looking at their clinical history, their mental health at the time of the murder and whether they abused drugs or alcohol and what part this played.

They found that out of 1,000 murders, the victim was a stranger in only 225 cases.

Less than 5% of those who had committed a "stranger murder" had symptoms of mental health problems at the time of the offence - compared to more than one in 10 who killed people they knew.


We are very keen to make sure the public have the facts and that the stigma surrounding mental illness and those that suffer from it is dispelled

Dr Tim Amos

The people who killed complete strangers were less likely to have a history of mental illness and so less likely to have contact with mental health services.

They discovered that few of the killers were women and that very few children were killed by strangers.

The researchers found that those who killed strangers were more likely to be people with drug and alcohol problems and this was likely to have played a part in their crime.

"These findings did not surprise me because psychiatrists have known for a long time that people with mental illness are much more likely to kill themselves than other people, and if they do kill someone else, it is more likely to be someone they know.

"The problem is that because they are rare, every case of a mentally-ill person murdering a stranger tends to be reported in the media, so the public believe it is happening much more than it is.

"We are very keen to make sure the public have the facts and that the stigma surrounding mental illness and those that suffer from it is dispelled," said Dr Amos.

A spokesperson for Mind, the mental health charity, said she hoped the findings would lead to a better public understanding of the mentally ill.

"Mind hopes that this study will be widely publicised to help dispel the myth - so damaging to people with mental health problems - that anyone with a diagnosis of mental disorder presents a serious risk to the public and should be detained.

"The focus needs to be on better community services not on more compulsion."

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08 Feb 01 | Health
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