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Study shows mentally ill more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Nearly one-third of adults with mental illness are likely to be victims of violence in a given six-month period, according to a new study by North Carolina State University, RTI International, the University of California, Davis, Simon Fraser University, and Duke University. 

The study also found a strong correlation between being a victim of violence and committing a violent act. The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health and funded as part of a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

"We hear about the link between violence and mental illness in the news, and we wanted to look not only at the notion that the mentally ill are a danger to others, but the possibility that they are also in danger," said Sarah Desmarais, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the work.

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; questions ranged in severity from pushing and shoving to using a weapon.

Researchers found that 23.9 percent of 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.

The study found that a significantly higher percentage of participants – 30.9 percent – had been victims of violence during the same time period. Among those who said they were victimized, 43.7 percent said they'd been victimized on multiple occasions.

"We found that individuals with mental illness are at high risk of victimization, representing a substantial public health concern," said Richard Van Dorn, Ph.D., senior mental health services researcher at RTI, co-author of the study, and principal investigator of the grant. "We found a strong correlation between violence and victimization, meaning that it's essential that we do more than just focus on the reduction of violence perpetration; we also have to identify ways to reduce victimization in this population."