Mental health can have drastic consequences on a person’s well-being. Lack of timely mental health awareness and treatment, and undiscovered mental health problems have led many people to commit serious crimes and get arrested.
These crimes can be an unlawful manifestation of obsessive thoughts and may also be gruesome. A person might kill in a schizophrenic episode as a response to hallucinations, an obsessive-compulsive hoarder might hoard public utilities, a kleptomaniac might steal from marketplaces, and a person with an addiction might commit a crime to obtain drugs. The range of crimes varies just like the spectrum of neuropsychiatric tendencies varies.
A convoluted knot of intrusive thoughts, weak impulse control, childhood trauma and neglect, lack of social support, or maladaptive behavior can often lead to criminal behavior. Yet, sadly, more often than not, the US justice system does not adequately factor in the impact of mental illnesses while establishing the guilt of an offender.
These are 5 instances when people got arrested after committing crimes because of their mental illnesses in the US.
1. Andrea Yates (2001)
Spent ~6 years in Harris County Jail, Houston, USA for murder before being transferred to a mental health facility
Diagnosis: Postpartum psychosis and depression
Andrea Yates was 36 when she drowned her 5 children aged between 6 months and 7 years one by one in a bathtub. As shocking and gruesome as it might sound, she acted on the hallucinatory voices telling her to kill her children lest they “stumble” and go to hell because of their actions. This intrusive thought pattern was supported by her fundamentalist religious beliefs that she was brainwashed into believing, one of which being that parents hold the responsibility for ensuring the salvation of their children. Andrea had been in and out of treatment and asylums for years, starting from her first child delivery.
Her story is speaking evidence of the lack of mental healthcare infrastructure in the US. Living in Texas, Yates was diagnosed with post-partum depression (depression caused after childbirth, commonly associated with the separation of child and mother and associated changes in hormones) and psychosis (unrealistic perception) but despite the increasing intensity of her symptoms, she was released by the doctors 2 days before the incident just on a mild recommendation that “she should think positive thoughts”. Yates’ story is a shocking horror story of how mental illnesses can make people commit crimes if left untreated. It also lays bare the need for the integration of mental health care experts/ doctors with our society’s other neurotypical institutions such as the police that are charged with maintaining law and order.
2. Winona Ryder (2001)
480 hours of community service for stealing expensive goods
Did you know that the Golden Globe-winning Stranger Things fame was once arrested for stealing from a retail store in 2001? Yes, it’s hard to register that somebody as rich and famous as Ryder would steal anything- much less the expensive trivia she could definitely afford- over $5000 worth of designer goods, including a cashmere Marc Jacobs sweater, hair adornments, and several pairs of socks from a store in Beverly Hills, California. But here we go.
What led her to steal was a strong unreasonable urge- known in medical parlance as kleptomania. Winona Ryder was diagnosed in the same year with kleptomania, anxiety disorder, and depression. Turns out she had an ongoing psychiatric treatment for a decade and had been in and out of psychiatric wards. Sadly, kleptomania is not a legal defense. Ryder was found guilty upon prosecution and she served 480 hours of community service thereafter for her stealing.
3. Andrew Goldstein (2001)
Spent ~19 years in New York Sing Sing Correctional Facility before being released
A former New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility inmate, Andrew Goldstein, suffered from schizophrenia and was unstable and violent without medicines. He voluntarily hospitalized himself 13 times, and each time, he was discharged on medications to live alone in his squalid basement apartment. Despite an increase in his streak of attacking people over the years, Andrew remained unnoticed by New York’s mental health system until he pushed a 32-year-old woman Kendra Webdale in front of an oncoming train in a subway station, causing her death. He was tried for the offense, and despite Andrew’s medical history and records, the jury found him guilty.
The prosecution convinced the jury that Andrew’s crime had nothing to do with his schizophrenia and that he had actually planned a calculated killing of Kendra, the reason being his psychopathic hatred and frustration towards the females. The jury conviction was later overturned by the appeal’s court because the prosecution’s expert evidence was based only on hearsay. Instead of facing a retrial, Andrew decided to plead guilty and was sentenced to 19 years. His crime led to the implementation of New York’s Kendra’s Law program committed to the care of mentally ill patients.
Kendra’s Law is a New York State law that allows judges to order individuals with serious mental illness to seek assisted outpatient treatment with the goal to provide treatment and support to individuals who might not otherwise seek it and to protect public safety.
4. Tony Timpa (2016)
Died during police brutality for seeking help in Dallas, USA
Diagnosis: Schizophrenia, Depression, Bipolar Disorder and Anxiety Disorder
The Tony Timpa incident lays bare how “vulnerable” people with mental disabilities can be while dealing with our law enforcement system. Tony Timpa suffered from schizophrenia and while having a psychotic episode, he called 911 for help when he didn’t take his medication. The Dallas Police dispatched their crisis intervention training team trained to help those with disabilities to rescue Tony Timpa. What happened on their arrival was a misuse of power and authority and excessive force by the police.
Timpa, whose hands were already restrained at the time of the arrival of the policemen by a security guard who misunderstood his erratic behavior, was restrained further by the policemen on his legs. And without any apprehension of violence from Timpa, the policemen kneeled on his back and neck ignoring all his cries that they were killing him. The policemen continued to crack juvenile jokes mocking Timpa as Timpa’s state grew worse, all signs of which were blatantly ignored by the policemen.
Timpa died 14 minutes after his arrest and those policemen stood protected from litigation because of their qualified immunity for a long time until the apex Court intervened and ruled that a wrongful death suit can go forward against those police officers. This incident was hidden by the Dallas police for 3 long years until it was brought into limelight after the police similarly manhandled George Floyd and the issue of police atrocities became a public sensation.
5. Matthew Rushin (2019)
Spent ~2 years in Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, Virginia, USA, before being released on conditional pardon by Governor with conditions imposed
In January 2019, a 20-year-old autistic Mathew Rushin hit a moving vehicle in a parking lot and fled. He then drove head-on into traffic and struck another vehicle, leaving a 77-year-old severely and permanently disabled and his wife seriously injured. Rushin pleaded guilty to malicious wounding and hit and run and was sentenced to prison for 50 years with 40 years of his sentence suspended, essentially 10 years. Prosecutors had stated on record that Rushin was suicidal and had intentionally meant to cause the crash. But his family maintained that his autism caused the accident, and he lacked any malicious intent. The ten-year sentence Rusin received was also in excess of the state sentencing guidelines, which suggested a term between 2 years 7 months, and 6 years 4 months.
Rushin’s mental health history was complicated and large. He was diagnosed with autism in middle school and had suffered a severe brain injury in 2017. The case met national headlines, with many calling for his release. Rushin’s family also denied that he was suicidal and stated that he did not completely understand the plea he entered and entered it out of fear. Finally, the efforts of all those trying to secure a pardon for Rushin, including celebrities like John Grisham and Jamie Lee Curtis, turned fruitful when Governor Ralph Northam gave Rushin a conditional pardon in 2021 releasing him.
How you can contribute to helping others with their mental health
There are a few things you can do to make society a little healthier in terms of helping those at risk for crimes.
- Interpersonal problems can escalate into criminal behavior and one way to reduce that is to apologize and make amends. Here’s how you can start.
- Aggressive behavior often stems from anger, so it’s important to know why people get unnaturally angry and how you can manage it.
- Violent video games are often blamed for real-life violence, but research says otherwise. Understand the relationship between the 2. In most cases, factors other than game violence lead to aggression and the game has nothing to do with aggressive behavior. Here’s the science behind violent games and real-life violence.
- Here are some tips to talk with depressed people – what to say and what not to say.
- Loneliness can make people desperate and social support is a known protective factor in reducing criminal behavior; here’s how you (or someone you know) can get out of the loneliness loop.
- Here are some tips to manage intrusive thoughts before they consume you or someone you know.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.