Women With Mental Illness Far More Vulnerable to Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence

Sexual assault and domestic violence are clear and present dangers all women must be aware of. But no group is more at risk for both than women suffering from severe forms of mental illness. While this type of abuse may well play a role in the onset of some mental health disorders in the first place, it is clear a special vulnerability exists for women who find themselves with such a condition and are forced to make a go of it in a world that often is not prepared to protect them. Many times it is the very people they trust and rely on who betray them.
abused woman

The truth about the high incidence of sexual assault and domestic abuse among the mentally ill was revealed in a study sponsored by researchers from King’s College and University College in London. To better understand the experiences of women with a mental health diagnosis, these researchers interviewed more than 300 randomly selected psychiatric outpatients who’d been registered with various community and health service organizations for more than a year, seeking treatment for their conditions. The answers they gave were compared to data compiled in a 2011-2012 crime survey that involved more than 22,000 subjects in order to check for correlations between exposure to violence and a history of mental illness.

Once the numbers were crunched, the researchers were flabbergasted to discover how frequently mentally ill women had suffered violence at the hands of sexual predators and domestic tormenters. Among the general population, 7% of all women surveyed in the crime report had been the victims of rape or attempted rape, while a stunning 40% of seriously mentally ill women had suffered the same fate. This means women in the latter category were almost six times as likely to have been victimized in this manner, making serious mental illness by far the greatest predictor of sexual assault that has ever been uncovered. And this statistic was made all the more disturbing by the discovery that 53% of mentally ill women victimized by actual or would-be rapists had attempted suicide as a result of their ordeal. In contrast, a mere 3% of non-mentally women had attempted to kill themselves after undergoing a sexual attack, which represents a difference between the two groups of more than 1,200%.

On the domestic violence front, 69% of women with a severe form of mental illness reported being physically assaulted by partners or family members at one time or another. Among women in general, approximately 25% will be the victims of domestic violence at some point, so that makes mentally ill women almost three times as likely to be physically attacked by someone close to them. One interesting difference is that while partners of the non-mentally ill are the primary perpetrators of domestic violence in most cases (about two-thirds of the time), mentally ill women are assaulted by family members far more frequently (also about two-thirds of the time). Women with severe mental illness are in general more dependent on family caregivers, since they are often unable to care for themselves or maintain an independent residence. Unfortunately, many of the family members called on to provide this type of care lack the skills, patience, temperament and sense of moral responsibility necessary to deal effectively with the challenges such an arrangement creates.

More Easily Victimized by Sexual Predators

The British research team made no attempt to discern the directionality of cause and effect in their study; which came first, in other words, the violence or the mental illness? It could be argued that becoming a victim of violence and physical assault predisposes a person to serious mental health troubles down the line, and that would be a difficult assertion to decisively dispute. But 10% of the participants in this survey with mental health problems who reported sexual assault said the incident had occurred within the previous year, after their diagnosis was already established. This number already surpasses the lifetime risk of rape for women in the non-mentally ill category, strongly indicating that a precarious state of mental health puts women in a position where they are far more easily victimized by sexual predators.

The statistics reveal just how vulnerable mentally ill women are to the heartless exploitation of the ruthless and unscrupulous. And the elevated suicide rate among this group following sexual assault clearly demonstrates effective intervention strategies are lacking up and down the line. Women with mental health disorders need careful support and monitoring but are often not getting what they need, during any stage of their struggle. Awareness of the dangers is important for family caregivers (those who really care), medical professionals and everyone else who belongs to the support networks of mentally ill women, who must rely on those in a position to aid and shelter them to be as diligent and informed in their duties as possible.

Posted on April 21st, 2016

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