STUDIES: "Double Tragedies": Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

A new report, “Double Tragedies,” addresses the question of whether people with severe mental illness should face the death penalty. The report was authored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and called for treatment and prevention instead of execution for such offenders. The report, based on extensive interviews with 21 family members in 10 different states, calls the death penalty “inappropriate and unwarranted” for people with severe mental disorders. Families of murder victims joined with families of persons with mental illness to speak out against the death penalty at NAMI’s annual convention on July 6 in San Francisco. “Family opposition to the death penalty is grounded in personal tragedy,” said MVFHR executive director Renny Cushing. “In the public debate about the death penalty and how to respond in the aftermath of violent crime, these are the voices that need to be heard.” “Most people with mental illness are not violent,” added NAMI executive director Mike Fitzpatrick. “When violent tragedies occur they are exceptional—because something has gone terribly wrong, usually in the mental health care system. Tragedies are compounded and all our families suffer.”

The report makes four basic recommendations:

· Ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses.

· Reform the mental health care system to focus on treatment and prevention.

· Recognize the needs of families of murder victims through rights to information and participation in criminal or mental health proceedings.

· And recognize the families of executed persons as victims and give them the assistance due to any victims of traumatic loss.

The report states that at least 100 people with mental illness have been put to death in the United States and hundreds more are awaiting execution. The full report may be read here.

(National Alliance on Mental Illness Press Release, July 6, 2009). See Mental Illness and Studies.