Is there a Connection Between Mental Illness and Violence?

By Matt Porter

December 19, 2012 Updated Dec 20, 2012 at 11:24 AM EDT

Vestal, NY (WBNG Binghamton) 20-year-old Adam Lanza, the shooter who killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary, was diagnosed with a form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome.

That's left some asking if the disorder could have led to the sudden act of violence.

John McNulty, whose six year old daughter is autistic, doesn't believe the disorder should be characterized by the acts of last Friday's shooting.

"The vast number of gentle kind souls that have this disorder should not be painted with a broad brush because of this one terrible person," said McNulty. "Whether that kid had Asperger's or not, didn't cause that, what caused it was some evil that gripped him."

Since one in four Americans live with a mental illness in any given year according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, forensic specialist Mary Muscari said you can't just draw links between violence and mental illness.

"You have these cases where people happen to be mentally ill, who are violent," said Muscari.

Muscari teaches criminal behavior at Binghamton University and has studied it for more than 30 years.

She said violent behavior can occur in anyone.

"We all have some level of risk to be violent," she said, "It's just that most of us have a very low risk."

In fact, family psychiatrist Dr. Michael Lavin said those with mental illness fall on the other side of the coin.

"People in general with these conditions and mental health issues tend to be more victims than they are perpetrators," said Lavin.

He said stigmas associated with mental illness are barriers themselves to treatment.

"This is where we need to focus," Lavin said, "Is getting people more help, and that help works."

For McNulty, he hopes the added attention on autism will help educate the rest of the country on a disorder diagnosed now in one of every 88 children.

"This is becoming one of the great public health challenges of the 21st century," said McNulty, "How are we going to take care of all these people that have all these cognitive challenges."