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Mentally Ill More Likely to Be Victims of Violence

August 3, 2005

More than one-fourth of individuals with severe mental illness were victims of violent crime in the past year, almost 12 times general population rates, according to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Depending on the type of violent crime (rape/sexual assault, robbery and assault), prevalence was six to 23 times greater among persons with severe mental illness than among the general population, said lead author Linda A. Teplin, Owen L. Coon Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

In addition, the annual incidence of violent crime in persons with severe mental illness who live in the community is more than four times higher than that in the general population, said Teplin, who is director of the Psycho-Legal Studies Program at Feinberg.

Teplin and her colleagues administered the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) to 936 randomly selected patients from 16 outpatient, day or residential mental health agencies in Chicago, and compared results with those of the 32,450 participants in the annual NCVS conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Research has shown that individuals with mental disorders who live in the community are a vulnerable population at high risk for becoming victims of crime. Symptoms associated with severe mental illness, such as disorganized thought processes, impulsivity and poor planning and problem solving may compromise one’s ability to perceive risks and protect oneself, Teplin and colleagues suggested.

Other factors correlated with victimization, including substance abuse, conflicted social relationships, poverty and homelessness, also are common among persons with severe mental illness, the authors said.

“People associate mental disorder with violence. We found that crime and mental disorder are linked, but not in the way people think. Persons with severe mental disorders are terribly vulnerable to victimization,” Teplin and co-investigators said.

“Since deinstitutionalization in the mid-1960s, people with severe mental illness have had no choice but to live in the community. But we have denied them basic needs, such as safe housing, supportive services and adequate mental health treatment,” Teplin said.

Teplin and colleagues propose that mental health treatment include systematic screening and monitoring persons for victimization, skill-based prevention programs to help these individuals learn to minimize risks and interventions to reduce revictimization.

At the policy level, they call for building collaborative relationships between the mental health and criminal justice systems and advocacy.

“People don’t think of crime victimization as a health disparity. But crime victimization disproportionately affects persons with severe mental disorder, especially racial and ethnic minorities. Moreover, many persons with severe mental illness are poor and homeless, adding to their risk,” the authors said.

Teplin’s co-researchers were Gary M. McClelland, research assistant professor; Karen M. Abram, assistant professor; and Dana A. Weiner, research assistant professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg.

This study was supported by MERIT award R37MH47994 from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Topics: Research