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Women with severe mental illness much more likely to victims of sexual assault

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Women with severe mental illness are two to three times more likely than the general population to experience domestic violence and are 40 percent more likely to be victims of attempted sexual assault or rape, says a new study by the University College London and King’s College London. These women are up to five times more likely be the victims of sexual assault.

The study was announced on September 3, 2014, and was published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

Researchers surveyed 303 randomly selected psychiatric outpatients, sixty percent of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The patients had been served by community services for one year or longer. The British Crime Survey questionnaire was used to collect data regarding sexual and domestic violence. The data was compared to 22,606 responses to the 2011/12 national crime survey.

Researchers included emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in their definition of domestic violence. The findings were adjusted to a variety of socio-economic factors such as marital status, age, and ethnicity.

"The number of rape victims among women with severe mental illness is staggering," says lead author Dr Hind Khalifeh of UCL's Division of Psychiatry. "At the time of the survey, 10% had experienced sexual assault in the past year, showing that the problems continue throughout adulthood. Considering the high rate of suicide attempts among rape victims in this group, clinicians assessing people after a suicide attempt should consider asking them if they have been sexually assaulted. Currently this is not done and so patients may miss opportunities to receive specialist support."

Study findings:

  • 40 percent women with severe mental illness suffered attempted rape or rape in adulthood, and 53 percent attempted suicide as a result. In contrast, seven percent of women in the general population have been the victims, out of whom three percent attempted suicide
  • Among men with severe mental illness, twelve percent were sexually assaulted, while 0.5 percent of men in the general population were raped
  • 49 percent of men and 49 percent women with severe mental illness are more likely to experience domestic violence
  • 63 percent of those who experienced domestic violence from family members (other than partners) compared to 35 percent of the general population

"Most domestic violence prevention policies for adults focus on partner violence, but this study shows that interventions for psychiatric patients also need to target family violence," says Dr Khalifeh.

"This study highlights that patients with severe mental illness are at substantially increased risk of being a victim of domestic and sexual violence," said senior author Louise Howard, Professor in Women's Mental Health at King's College London. “Despite the public's concern about violence being perpetrated by patients with severe mental illness, the reality for patients is that they are at increased risk of being victims of some of the most damaging types of violence."

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