Psychiatric impairment, social contact, and violent behavior: evidence from a study of outpatient-committed persons with severe mental disorder.


Journal Article

The need to better understand and manage risk of violent behavior among people with severe mental illness in community care settings is increasingly being recognized, as public-sector mental health systems face mandates to provide more cost-effective services in less restrictive environments. The potential for serious violence in a small proportion of severely mentally ill (SMI) individuals has emerged as a key factor that increases cost and limits continuity and normalization of community-based services for populations with psychiatric disabilities. A major challenge to developing better strategies for risk assessment and management in community care settings involves specifying complex interactions between psychiatric impairment and the conditions of social life--including the quality and frequency of contact with others at close quarters. This is a study of the determinants of violent behavior in a sample of 331 adults with severe mental disorders in community-based treatment. An interaction between severity of functional impairment and frequency of social contact was found to be significantly associated with risk of violence. Among respondents with Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) scores in the lowest 20%, more frequent contact with family and friends was linked to a higher probability of violent events. However, among better functioning respondents, frequent social contact was associated with lower risk of violence and greater satisfaction with relationships. These findings suggest that, where violence risk is concerned, the most salient feature of psychiatric impairment is the impairment of social relationships--the ways in which disorders of thought and mood not only distort one's subjective appraisal of experience and threat, but impair the ability to relate meaningfully to others, to resolve conflict and derive necessary support from family and friends. Thus, social contact may be a mixed blessing for SMI individuals. For some, it signals a positive quality of life, but for others--particularly those with extreme psychiatric impairment--frequent contact may add to conflict, stress, and increased potential and opportunity for physical violence. The impact of psychiatric impairment on violent behavior cannot be known in isolation, but must be considered in a social context. Effective community-based strategies to anticipate and prevent violence in the lives of persons with severe mental illness must take into account such interactions between social and clinical variables.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Swanson, J; Swartz, M; Estroff, S; Borum, R; Wagner, R; Hiday, V

Published Date

  • December 1998

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 33 Suppl 1 /

Start / End Page

  • S86 - S94

PubMed ID

  • 9857785

Pubmed Central ID

  • 9857785

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0933-7954

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1007/s001270050215


  • eng

Conference Location

  • Germany