Relationship Between Mental Disorders And Crime-Georgina Pipson’s Tragedy
Ghanaians woke up to the shocking news of a mother who had killed five children . Georgina Akweley Pipson, 33 who is said to be mentally ill, decided to arrange her dead children according to their ages— why? The likely questions on people’s mind and lips might be “why would a “mother” kill her own children and eventually attempt suicide? The irony of the matter is that mothers are supposed to be the beacon of love and care, especially towards their own children. Perhaps this might be the reason why the family of the woman seems to have dissociated themselves from the “patient-offender”. So what would motivate a “mother” to commit such a “crime”? At this point, the linkage between mental disorders and crime comes to mind and l ask a question that professionals in this area keep on trying to answer— to what extent does mental disorder influence criminality or criminal behaviour? This question sends me back to my clinical criminology class. The linkage would help the public to understand what might have caused this tragedy. One should not assume and take it for granted that Ms Pipson was insensitive and to a large extent wicked. She was the biological mother and obviously, from her “suicide note”, a loving and caring mother. Her suicide note as reported in the front page of the January 7, 2010 issue of the Daily Graphic was : “ My people deserted me,” “God give me hope,” “forgive me and my children, Nana, Kwaku, Angel, Kofi, Esi”. “What a painful world. God have mercy on me and my children”, “why, Kojo, my husband,” “Kojo, I do love you and will never forget you.” This note indicated that she might have been severely depressed. Although she was divorced, in her mind, she was still married to the ex-husband Asante. Two things stand out here; she seemed to have had a mental disorder and committed a crime. I am faced with the task of drawing the relationship between two concepts that are difficult to explain. The words mental disorders and criminality or crime seem to be too broad and sometimes ambiguous. To borrow the words of Peay (2002), the phrase ‘mental disorder’ is itself problematic as it is a term of ‘acute terminological inexactitude’. Perhaps what brings some sort of simplicity is the fact that the relationship between mental disorders and criminality is to be considered specifically in relation to affective disorders (depression), schizophrenic illness and crime. There seems a difficulty or problem of uncertainty among academics and practitioners in trying to link mental disorders with crime. While some believe mental disorders or disturbances are equal to criminality, others differ on this view. The problem has to do with trying to establish a clear connection or relationship between mental disorders and crime and/or criminality. The relationship between mental disorders (abnormality) and criminality is an uncertain one as both are concepts that are difficult and unclear to explain or discuss in terms of definition and causes (Prins, 1999; 2005). Prins (2005), in his book ‘Offenders, Deviants or Patients?’, critically examines the difficulty in trying to describe relationship between mental disorders and criminality. He agrees with the view that there is no clear-cut causal connection or relationship between mental disorders (disturbances) and crime or criminality. However, he is of the view that this situation is so because of the fact that we are trying to make connections between very complex and different phenomena, which are subject of continuous debate on both the definition and substance. In his view, the two phenomena are not directly comparable. It is true that from time to time, persons charged with a grave offence such as homicide are found to be suffering from severe depressive disorders at the time of the offence. There are a lot of myths surrounding mental disorders and criminality, especially with violent and bizarre crimes. Prins (2005), in his article ,Mental Disorders and Violent Crime, identifies three types of myths that cause anxiety among the public and what he calls ‘moral panics’. First, people are usually concerned about the uncertainties surrounding the causes of mental disorders; second people are afraid of the possibility of being mad and finally there is the fear of the intractability of some form of serious mental disorders. This anxiety causing myths are irrational but could be explained, given the level of media exaggerations of crimes committed by people with mental disorders. This complex picture being painted is even made more problematic due to the prevalence and presentation of mental disorders and also the changing nature and meaning of crime (Hollins, 1989; Hodgins, 1993 & Prins, 2005). Crime is simply defined as any type of behaviour labelled by society as illegal, unlawful and punishable by the criminal law (Blackburn, 1993). Usually a crime refers to the acts or omissions a society punishes, which are codified as law. What is labelled as a crime can change over time, depending on the changes in the beliefs, ideals and ideas of a society or the political leadership, which will, in turn, affect the law. For instance, there was a time in Ghana when domestic violence was not criminal and punishable but now new understanding of events and people’s changing opinions have made it an illegal and unlawful way of life. The law keeps on changing and legislation is being made every now and then to criminalise new acts and omissions (Blackburn, 1993; Prins, 2005). Like crime and criminality, mental disorders also do change in definition and scope. ‘Mental disorder’ is itself problematic as it is a term of acute terminological inexactitude (Peay, 2002). Mental illness and mental disorders seem to be used sometimes interchangeably and at other times to mean different things. Mental illness is considered to be a disease of the mind that interferes substantially with a person’s ability to function normally and cope with life on daily basis (Bartol &Bartol, 2005). Crime and criminality would be used interchangeably and also mental disorders and disturbances would be seen as the same in this article. Mental disorders are manifested in a variety of behaviours ranging from dangerous and harmful acts to those that are strange and bizarre Hollin, 1989; Bartol & Bartol, 2005). It is a difficult task trying to provide accurate and precise epidemiological evidence for people suffering from mental disorders and the percentage involved in crime. There is evidence that major mental disorders account for at most three per cent of violence in American society (Monahan 1992). However, like crime, one cannot rely solely on these figures as they only provide a projected indicator as it is possible that some individuals with mental disorders do not come to the attention of the mental health services and researchers alike. Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that negatively affects how one feels, thinks and act. Individuals with clinical depression are unable to function as they used to. Often they have lost interest in activities that were once enjoyable to them, and feel sad and hopeless for extended periods of time. Clinical depression is not the same as feeling sad or depressed for a few days and then feeling better. It can affect one’s body, mood, thoughts, and behaviour. It can change eating habits, feelings and thinking, one’s ability to work and study, and function socially. Clinical depression is not a sign of personal weakness, or a condition that can be wished away. Clinically depressed people cannot "pull themselves together" and get better. In fact, clinical depression often interferes with a person's ability or wish to get help. Clinical depression is a serious illness that lasts for weeks, months and sometimes years. It may even influence someone to contemplate or attempt suicide. People of all ages, genders, ethnicities, cultures, and religions can suffer from clinical depression. Schizophrenia is the mental disorder that people most often identify with ‘crazy or bizarre’ behaviours (Bartol & Bartol, 2005). It is categorised as one of the most severe and complicated mental disorders with affective disorders. Some types of schizophrenic disorders, especially the paranoid varieties, have been found to be related to violence under certain circumstances (Blackburn, 1993; Hodgins, 1993; Bartol & Bartol, 2005; Prins, 2005), while studies of criminality among patients in psychiatric hospitals and of mental disorder among incarcerated offenders have also suggested an association between the major mental disorders (schizophrenia and major affective disorders) and crime. However, these investigations are characterised by notable methodological weaknesses, and, consequently, this conclusion has remained tentative. Little is known about the criminality of intellectually handicapped people. Persons suffering from depression may have the concerns of helplessness in their “misery” so much so that death becomes a happy escape. This may cause severely depressed people to kill their loved ones (children) under the delusion of a future without hope and the inevitable catastrophe overtaking their nearest and dearest as well as themselves. at this point they decide to kill in order to spare their loved ones any suffering. While Georgina referred to how she loved her husband and children, the story indicates the likely marital problems that might have led to their divorce. Accepting the divorce compounded by an underlying mental problem might have pushed poor Georgina to commit that act. I think the family of this woman, especially the ex-husband need help to understand all that has happenned. He might be going through some stressful conditions in trying to understand his likely contribution to the whole catastrophe. I think he needs counselling as a matter of urgency before he starts blaming himself. The public, especially people around him, need to give him great support in the coming weeks to enable him live through this “nightmare”. What lessons have we (the public) learnt from this gory act and our responsibility towards one another in the family set-up? We all, as a society, have the responsibility to be each other’s keeper and to see the problems of others as a communal one. Perhaps someone could have intervened somewhere or sometime to bring help to the seemingly depressed mother. What did we as a family, community and nation do wrong in failing to prevent this tragedy? Although my contribution to the understanding of this difficult relationship has been selective as l have not referred to important states of mind and how they can also affect (criminal) behaviour. I hope this article would make a modest contribution to public understanding of the Georgina Pipson tragedy. — The writer is a Police Officer with the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) and a student of Clinical Criminology.
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