Study: People With Mental Illness Are Five Times More Likely to Be Murdered

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Violent acts directed at, not committed by, the mentally ill should concern us most. 

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In the wake of highly-publicized acts of violence perpetrated by mentally ill individuals, many have found it necessary to emphasize that such events are incredibly rare. On the population level, mental illness is in fact exceedingly common, yet people with mental illness are responsible for only 5 to 10 percent of violent crimes.

They are also nearly five more likely to be the victim of murder, according to a new study in BMJ.

American and Swedish researchers were among the first to examine the murder rate among the mentally ill, evaluating a cohort of over 7 million Swedish adults over a period of seven years.

They found that the risk of being murdered was highest, at nine-fold, for people with substance use disorders, a number that may of course be subject to confounding lifestyle variables. But it was also increased for people with other mental illnesses in a way that couldn't be explained by substance use.

Those with diagnosed personality disorders, for example, had a 3.2 times increased risk of being a victim of murder. For depression, the risk was increased by a factor of 2.6, for anxiety disorders, 2.2, and for schizophrenia, 1.8.

These numbers represent overall risk. Unmarried males with low socioeconomic status were particularly likely to be victimized; they were also at a heightened risk for suicide or accidental death, as previous studies have already established.

Substance abuse treatment, obviously, could help reduce the chance of mentally ill individuals becoming victim to violence. So too, say the authors, could improved housing and financial stability -- those with mental disorders are more likely to live in high deprivation neighborhoods, a factor which they believe contributed to their findings. And among the general public, "feelings of uneasiness, fear, and a desire for social distance [from people with mental illness] are common and may increase the risk of victimization," they write.

The authors also point out that the U.S. has a much higher homicide rate than Sweden's, and that Americans with severe mental illness are four times more likely than others to be non-fatally victimized. While no research currently exists on the murder rate for this population, it is unlikely to be much different than what was found in this study, and is perhaps even higher.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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