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Mentally Ill at Higher Risk of Victimization, Study Says

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By Taylor Sisk

Almost one of every three adults living with mental illness is likely to be the victim of violence in any six-month period, according to research conducted by RTI International, NC State, Duke, the University of California, Davis and Simon Fraser University.

The researchers found that 30.9 percent of those interviewed had been victims of violence in the previous six months. Of those who said they had been victimized, 43.7 percent said it had occurred on multiple occasions.

“We had a pretty good idea that people with mental illness are more likely to be victimized than they are to actually perpetrate violence, but that’s not the way things are portrayed in the media,” said Richard Van Dorn, a senior mental health services researcher at RTI and co-author of the study.

The research team further found that 23.9 percent of those in the study had committed a violent act within the same time period. Almost two-thirds of those acts took place in residential settings; only 2.6 percent were committed in schools or workplaces.

“The victimization certainly doesn’t get as much attention as the violence does,” Van Dorn said.

Regarding the correlation between being a victim of violence and committing a violent act, Van Dorn said, “We’re not saying that victimization is causing the violence or that the violence is causing the victimization, just that those two things are very closely related.”

The study was part of a broader National Institute of Mental Health project focused on the co-occurrence of violence and victimization in adults with mental illness. It was funded by a grant from the NIMH and appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Further studies will examine potential causes of violence and victimization and treatment outcomes.

Large group surveyed

The researchers compiled a database of 4,480 mentally ill adults who had been interviewed in five previous studies that focused on issues ranging from antipsychotic medications to treatment approaches. All of those interviewed were asked questions related to violence and victimization.

Van Dorn said there’s a great deal yet to be learned about the relationship between having a mental illness and committing a violent act. Substance abuse, he pointed out, is certainly a factor.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 28 percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia who also had substance-abuse issues had been convicted of violent crimes. The conviction rate for those who had schizophrenia and no substance-abuse issues was 8 percent and for the general population, 5 percent.

Van Dorn called the victimization of people with mental illness a “substantial public health concern.”

He said that previous studies have shown that adherence to treatment often reduces the likelihood of violence. The research team plans to further explore that, as well as looking at ways in which family dynamics might be improved to help prevent stressful situations from escalating into confrontations.

“Can we reduce violence and victimization in adults with mental illness? I think that’s the ultimate goal of this study,” he said.

“We think [this research] has a chance to move the field forward and get at some of these things.”

Image courtesy Run Jane Fox, flickr creative commons

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