Mentally Ill at Higher Risk of Becoming Victims, Not Victimizers, Study Finds

April 20, 2009

A new study has found that patients with a serious mental illness are actually more likely to become the victim of a violent crime than they are to commit one.

Patients with a serious mental illness are actually more likely to become the victim of a violent crime than they are to commit one, a new study has found.

Individuals who are suffering from delusions, hallucinations and a general worsening of symptoms are often the victims of violent crimes, Brent Teasdale, an assistant professor of criminal justice at George State University, found. In addition, when these individuals are homeless or struggling with alcohol abuse, they become “particularly vulnerable” to victimization.

“They actually have higher rates of victimization than they have of violence commission, which I think is counter to the stereotype that highly symptomatic, obviously delusional, visibly mentally disordered people are dangerous, unpredictable and violent,” Teasdale said. “There’s no one size fits all approach to these delusions, but the odds of victimization are multiplied almost by a factor of two when a person experiences these delusions.”

One possible explanation for the finding, Teasdale said, could be that when mentally ill people are experiencing an increase in symptoms, they are “focused on their internal mental states” and thus have a lesser cognitive ability to use violence in interacting with others. In addition, previous research suggests that a jump in these symptoms may push caregivers away, which leaves the ill patients without that additional protector.

Data from the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study was used for the research, which provided Teasdale with interviews that were conducted with mentally ill patients about every 10 weeks for one year. Patients at three psychiatric hospitals in Pittsburgh, PA, Kansas City, MO, and Worchester, MA, were asked about stress and symptom levels, social relationships, and violence that had been committed against them.

Study findings could allow clinicians to identify that an increase in symptoms may lead to more violent acts being committed against them, Teasdale adds, and create “assessment tools that focus on victimization risk and classes that better educate families about caring for the mentally ill.”

“Most of us know people who have mental disorders. These are our family members and our friends and so we should care about their victimization experience,” Teasdale said. “The stereotypes persist because people are unaware of the victimization risk to people with mental illness. If they learned that victimization risk were higher than the violence commission rates, I think that would help alleviate some of that stigma and help people think about people with mental disorders in a different way.”