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New study shows adults with mental illness more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators

A recent study shows that nearly one-third of adults with mental illness are likely to be victims of violence, and that adults with mental illness who commit violence are most likely to do so in residential settings. The study also finds a strong correlation between being a victim of violence and committing a violent act.

The paper, “Community Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults With Mental Illnesses” was conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University; RTI International; the University of California, Davis; Simon Fraser University; and Duke University.

“We hear about the link between violence and mental illness in the news, and we wanted to look not only at the notion that adults with mental illness are a danger to others, but the possibility that they are also in danger,” explained Dr. Sarah Desmarais, an assistant professor of psychology at N.C. State and lead author of the paper describing the work.

The researchers compiled a database of 4,480 mentally ill adults who had answered questions about both committing violence and being victims of violence in the previous six months. The database drew from five earlier studies that focused on issues ranging from antipsychotic medications to treatment approaches. Those studies had different research goals, but all asked identical questions related to violence and victimization.

The study also revealed 23.9 percent of the study participants had committed a violent act within the previous six months. The majority of those acts – 63.5 percent – were committed in residential settings, not in public. Only 2.6 percent of the violent acts were committed in school or workplace settings.

Desmarais and fellow researchers found that a significantly higher percentage of participants – 30.9 percent – had been victims of violence in the same time period. And of those who said they were victimized, 43.7 percent said they’d been victimized on multiple occasions.

Karen Holst Ed.D., LCSW, clinical operations manager at Monarch, said many of the individuals supported at Monarch have difficulty advocating for themselves and/or establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries which can easily escalate into being victimized or re-victimized.

“Our clinicians are frequently teaching and practicing assertiveness skills to the individuals we support due to the high rate of individuals being taken advantage of, financially, emotionally, and at times physically,” Holst explained. “This type of research may assist with dispelling some of the myths that individuals with mental illness are more prone to violence.”

Desmarais agrees the research can be important in terms of combating stigma. She believes the most important thing is creating a dialogue that is inclusive of victimization as well as violence.

“This may include efforts to frame clinical interactions to ensure that they touch on issues related to potential victimization, or more actively promoting public and/or psychoeducation campaigns around the prevalence of victimization in this population, as a couple of examples,” she said

“We also found that participants who had been victims of violence were 11 times more likely to commit violence,” shared Desmarais, who has long worked with adults with mental illness, behavioral problems and those caught in the justice system and said there is a better way to deal with individuals than incarceration.

She said the study highlights the need for more robust public health interventions that are focused on violence.

“It shouldn’t just be about preventing adults with mental illness from committing violent acts, it should also be about protecting those at risk of being victimized. It’s the right thing to do,” Desmarais added. “In addition, while correlation is not necessarily causation, preventing violence against the mentally ill may drive down instances of violence committed by the mentally ill.”

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