Evidence-Based Reviews

Chief complaint: Homicidal. Assessing violence risk

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A structured approach can help identify risk factors, including those not due to mental illness.


 

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Mr. F, age 35, is homeless and has a history of cocaine and alcohol use disorders. He is admitted voluntarily to the psychiatric unit because he has homicidal thoughts toward Ms. S, who works in the shelter where he has been staying. Mr. F reports that he is thinking of killing Ms. S if he is discharged because she has been rude to him. He states that he has access to several firearms, but he will not disclose the location. He has been diagnosed with unspecified depressive disorder and exhibited antisocial personality disorder traits. He is being treated with sertraline. However, his mood appears to be relatively stable, except for occasional angry verbal outbursts. The outbursts have been related to intrusive peers or staff turning the television off for group meetings. Mr. F has been joking with peers, eating well, and sleeping appropriately. He reports no suicidal thoughts and has not been physically violent on the unit. However, Mr. F has had a history of violence since his teenage years. He has been incarcerated twice for assault and once for drug possession.

How would you approach assessing and managing Mr. F’s risk for violence?

We all have encountered a patient similar to Mr. F on the psychiatric unit or in the emergency department—a patient who makes violent threats and appears angry, intimidating, manipulative, and/or demanding, despite exhibiting no evidence of mania or psychosis. This patient often has a history of substance abuse and a lifelong pattern of viewing violence as an acceptable way of addressing life’s problems. Many psychiatrists suspect that more time on the inpatient unit is unlikely to reduce this patient’s risk of violence. Why? Because the violence risk does not stem from a treatable mental illness. Further, psychiatrists may be apprehensive about this patient’s potential for violence after discharge and their liability in the event of a bad outcome. No one wants their name associated with a headline that reads “Psychiatrist discharged man less than 24 hours before he killed 3 people.”

The purported relationship between mental illness and violence often is sensationalized in the media. However, research reveals that the vast majority of violence is in fact not due to symptoms of mental illness.1,2 A common clinical challenge in psychiatry involves evaluating individuals at elevated risk of violence and determining how to address their risk factors for violence. When the risk is primarily due to psychosis and can be reduced with antipsychotic medication, the job is easy. But how should we proceed when the risk stems from factors other than mental illness?

This article reviews risk factors for violence, discusses targeted violence against a specific victim, and offers practical tips for assessing and managing risk, particularly when the risk for violence is not due to mental illness.

Violence and mental illness: A tenuous link

Violence is a major public health concern in the United States. Although in recent years the rates of homicide and aggravated assault have decreased dramatically, there are approximately 16,000 homicides annually in the United States, and more than 1.6 million injuries from assaults treated in emergency departments each year.3 Homicide continues to be one of the leading causes of death among teenagers and young adults.4

The most effective methods of preventing widespread violence are public health approaches, such as parent- and family-focused programs, early childhood education, programs in school, and public policy changes.3 However, as psychiatrists, we are routinely asked to assess the risk of violence for an individual patient and devise strategies to mitigate violence risk.

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