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Sathankulam Custodial Killings: Violence and Mental Illness Are Not Related

Sathankulam Custodial Killings: Violence and Mental Illness Are Not Related

Following the custodial torture and deaths of P. Jayaraj and Bennicks at a police station in Sathankulam, Tamil Nadu, at the hands of Inspector Sridhar and others,  some regional news publications in the state wondered aloud if the policemen responsible had a mental illness. Following a question – “How can anyone be so brutal?” – one Tamil magazine has been referring to the perpetrators as ‘psychos’.

Any excess violence seems to evoke this question in the media. For many years, if something was inconceivable, some sections of the press reflexively reached for mental illness as an easy explanation – something to assuage themselves and their readers that there is still a method in the madness, and to reassure themselves that the world has not become unpredictable.

But in the process, they also encourage a misguided perception of mental illness that makes room for violent behaviour.

In reality, mentally ill persons are not violent or dangerous. In the rare instances of violence involving mentally ill persons, a mind-altering agent like alcohol and/or particular medicines are often involved. The violent person’s socio-economic circumstances must also be taken into account.

According to one 2015 paper that quoted another study published in 1990, “Even if the elevated risk of violence in people with mental illness is reduced to the average risk in those without mental illness, an estimated 96% of the violence that currently occurs in the general population would continue to occur”.

That is, violence associated with (context-specific) mental illness contributes to only 4% of reported violent incidents. However, irresponsible journalists and other commentators, including filmmakers, have frequently implied that the situation is different, and have even classified persons of certain ethnicities as being mentally ill.

Many other studies have found that people with long term severe mental illnesses living in the community are not prone to violence. If anything, they have been victims of violence and sexual abuse, and people with these diagnoses fail to get justice due to the prejudice and because they’re seen as being less credible. In effect, we need to change our perception of mental illness and bring our beliefs closer to what the science says is true.

Personality traits

Every mental illness lies on a spectrum of mental conditions ranging from mild anxiety and/or depression to major illnesses like schizophrenia. And contrary to some depictions, there is a predictable set of symptoms for each illness. Violence is not one of them. A mentally ill person is as prone or not prone to violence as a non-mentally ill person.

In this context, the term ‘psycho’ is just a prefix that indicates that the rest of the word relates to the mind. For example, psychology is the study of mind, psychotherapy is treatment of the mind, and psychopharmacology is the study of medicines used to treat psychiatric illnesses. The prefix by itself doesn’t mean anything.

In a similar vein, some commentators have also speculated that the Sathankulam policemen’s violent acts could have been fuelled by stress. It’s generally true that police personnel have been under considerable stress due to the nature of the lockdown brought on by the government.

But the same is true for our doctors, nurses, other healthcare and emergency service staff, essential service providers and even journalists. Stress can’t be an excuse for letting one’s steam out on another person, to the point of their death, and then expecting lenience.

Also read: Collective Anxiety: We Must Not Forget the Mental Agony Caused by a Pandemic

So what could be the causes for such brutal violence? We don’t yet have any details about the individuals, so we can’t be certain. And it’s important for us to confront this uncertainty without undermining mental illnesses. This said, such crimes often have some common ‘features’. For example, some personality traits render some without empathy for others’ pain and suffering, and compromise their ability to experience guilt.

Such empathy and guilt have shaped humankind for years. We are all inherently prone to and capable of violence, and other crimes. But we don’t indulge in them because we empathise with others and feel guilty when we have committed mistakes of our own.

Other personality traits that often coexist with the ones above are an inability to read others’ emotions, low frustration tolerance and low threshold for discharge of aggression. Such persons also tend to have little respect for rules, laws or responsibility.

When all these traits come together in a person, the resulting condition is called asocial personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. The term ‘psychopath’ was used until some time ago but is not used in the medical literature.


A more structural issue is power. Specifically, having absolute power over somebody brings out the worst in us, especially if we are not expected to account for our actions. A fairly common example is ragging or hazing in colleges. The extent to which some senior students have ragged their juniors is incredible.

The younger students often don’t complain for fear of adverse consequences or because redressal mechanisms are not easy to access or are long-winded. Many of them have killed themselves to escape their emotional, and sometimes physical, trauma.

The prevalence of ragging has declined noticeably in the last few years thanks to proportionate laws and penalties, strict implementation and shifts in public awareness and perception.

At Sathankulam, as in any police station around the world but more so in places where literacy is low and inequality is high, there is a lopsided equation of power between police personnel and those in custody. But unlike with ragging, this power equation can’t be made to go away.

The policemen accused of killing Jayaraj and Bennicks could have thought (again, we can’t yet be sure) that they had unlimited power over those in their custody and so they could do whatever they wanted. And if any of the policemen had the aforementioned personality traits, the propensity for violence could have manifested in an aggressive manner.


All this said, personality traits often don’t suffice to excuse violent conduct.

For those lacking empathy, compassion or guilt, a fear of consequences to oneself often serves as a good deterrent. So the state and the Central Bureau of Investigation conducting an impartial investigation and the courts imposing proportionate penalties will help to prevent or even minimise such events in future.

Empathy can be taught and imbibed, but the earlier this happens during one’s growth, the better. Parents can be role models for empathy and compassion. Even simple habits like telling children stories of the suffering of human beings and how some others responded with empathy, and how guilt helped to reform a person, can help.

Also read: The Political ‘Environment’ of India’s Mental Health

People young and old can learn from their own mistakes but that doesn’t mean stories don’t help: people can learn vicariously as well.

This is also why members of the press, as responsible actors, should tell the right stories – the suffering of the victims rather than the sensational nature of the violence.

Dr Mohan Raj is a consultant psychiatrist based in Chennai.

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