Mental Health and Criminality |

The UK Government is promising to increase the range of services catering for mental health problems. Mental sickness is a growing concern, and poses the usual question: is mental illness on the increase or are the practitioners detecting and reporting much that has previously been hidden. One begins to suspect that mental fitness is rare and that most people have some mental health problems at one time or another. If the trend continues, the end point will be an excuse for every crime in the form of an identifiable mental condition. There seems to be a convergence with the words of Abdul Baha who said that no man is wicked or evil, but some are like children and need education and some are sick and must be healed.Another contemporary area of government action is prison reform. Traditionally, prison was said to serve two purposes: punishment of convicted offenders and deterrence of potential offenders. In modern times, reform of the criminal has come into prominence. The aim is to return convicts to freedom in a condition in which they will not offend again. Education in prison is long established and helps some convicts to reform. These are presumably Abdul Baha’s child-like offenders. But many leave prison and immediately return to a life of crime. Are these the sick who need to be healed? If they are, their sickness is mental.The danger in this trend of reasoning is to diminish individual responsibility to vanishing point. If every bad act can be ascribed to a mental condition, no-one is responsible for a crime. Prisons will not be needed, and will be replaced by schools for the child-like and sanatoria for the sick. The legal system currently has tests for insanity and those criminals judged to be sane are held responsible for their actions. Is this approach now becoming out-dated, and should all criminality be viewed as evidence of mental illness?It is easy to ascribe mental illness to violent offenders, people who are overcome by anger and lash out with a weapon to kill or maim their victim. It is less easy to take the same view of financial fraud. As Balzac observed: behind every great fortune their lies a crime. The most intelligent criminals know that if they commit only one crime the chances of being detected are very small. Yet one crime in the world of high finance can provide wealth and security for life, as every Russian oligarch knows. Such people seem coolly rational at all times, and if they suffer from a mental illness, that condition must be well hidden. Yet as the neurologists and psychiatrists continue to peel back layer after layer of the mysteries of the human brain, no doubt in time they will discover the Balzac syndrome.