Schizophrenia and offending: area of residence and the impact of social disorganisation and disadvantage

Criminology Research Council grant ; (30/04-05)

Schizophrenia is the most common of the psychotic disorders and is characterised by fundamental distortions of thought (delusions), perception (hallucinations) and emotional response. It is a disabling illness, with a lifetime population prevalence of 0.5% to 1.7% (Jablensky et al 1992). The estimated one-month treated prevalence of psychotic illness in Australia is 4.7 per 1000 estimated resident population aged 18-64 (Jablensky et al 2000). This figure does not include those persons not in contact with treatment services. The place in society and the care of people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia constitutes one of the thorniest issues in public health and social policy worldwide. In recent years, advances in the management of this disorder have made it possible for an increasing number of individuals with schizophrenia to lead semi-dependent or independent lives in the community. However, irrespective of the deinstitutionalisation of mental health care and the concomitant focus on the human rights of the mentally ill, the capacity of communities and of society at large to deal with emerging problems of criminalisation of mental illness and of marginalisation, homelessness, poverty and victimisation has been put to a severe test. This has been compounded by widespread stereotyping and stigmatisation of individuals with mental illness. The 1996 General Social Survey (US) revealed 'an underlying negative attitude to persons with mental health problems, an exaggeration of the impairments or "threat" associated with these disorders, and a startling negativity towards individuals with substance dependence problems' (Pescosolido et al 1999).