RESEARCH WEEKLY: Sexual Violence Faced by Women with Serious Mental Illness 

By Andrea Mueller

Women with serious mental illness are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. The repercussions on the women who experience this type of violence include physical illness and injury, as well as high rates of adverse psychological effects. Experiencing such traumatic events can have profound implications on women’s lives. Numerous research studies suggest that trauma experienced by women with serious mental illness increases their risk for substance misuse, suicidal behavior and criminal justice involvement.  
A systematic review of sexual violence among women with serious mental illness by authors from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill was recently published in The Journal of Social Work. The research authors analyzed previously conducted systematic reviews of sexual violence among women. In total, these separate, systematic reviews included 186 research studies on intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Four out of five of these reviews echoed previous research results that women with serious mental illness experience higher rates of victimization compared to the general population 
Authors of this review offered two recommendations for prevention of sexual violence for women with serious mental illness. These include the implementation of domestic violence and sexual assault screening in mental health treatment and the development of comprehensive mental health and safety interventions.  
Sexual violence  

The landmark research article on sexual violence faced by women with serious mental illness was published in 2015 in the journal Psychological Medicine. Research had previously shown the increased risk of sexual violence experienced by women compared to men. This specific study focused on how this risk of victimization may be greater for women with serious mental illness. The findings were collected through the “British Crime Survey domestic/sexual violence questionnaire.” Participants included 303 people receiving psychiatric services and a sample of the general population.  
The results highlight the significant disproportionate violence women with serious mental illness experience. Patients receiving treatment for serious mental illness were more likely to have been victims of sexual or domestic violence in the past year when compared to the general population. Moreover, the risk of sexual or domestic violence was significantly higher for women compared to men with serious mental illness. 
The rate of domestic violence experienced by women with serious mental illness throughout their adulthood was more than doubled the general population (69% v. 33%, respectively), according to the study results. Men with serious mental illness showed a similar trend when compared to the general population (49% v. 17%, respectively).  
Men with serious mental illness had significantly higher rates of experiencing sexual assault when compared to the general population (23% v. 3%, respectively). Women with serious mental illness, on the other hand, reported triple the amount of sexual assaults as opposed to men with serious mental illness (61% v. 23%, respectively). Women serious mental illness also experienced three times the amount of sexual assaults when compared to women in the general population (61% v. 21%, respectively). These findings clearly show the disproportionate rate of sexual and domestic victimization experienced by women with serious mental illness.  

Women with serious mental illness, more so than the general population, were more likely to report adverse psychosocial effects and suicidal behavior due to sexual violence. Given that women with serious mental illness are more at risk of sexual violence, the study authors suggest that health care professionals should work to improve violence detection methods and utilize trauma-informed care for the treatment of serious mental illness. 

Andrea Mueller is a guest Research Weekly author and Experimental Psychology Masters student at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

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