Report: California must treat rising rates of violence as a public health crisis - MedCity News

Violence in California has escalated since 2020, according to a 33 page report published last week by researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine. The report — the only multi-year assessment of violence nationwide — revealed that nearly 20% of Californians have experienced physical or sexual violence in the past year.

Although violence is on the rise, violence prevention programs across the country are underfunded and treated as a low priority, Anita Raj, the report’s lead researcher, said in an interview. She advocated for policymakers to devote more money and effort to violence prevention programs that address the root causes of the state’s rising levels of violence. The best way to prevent violence is by improving the financial, social and emotional security of vulnerable populations, Raj argues.

Much of the way violence is described and discussed derives from crime data. This is problematic and is “only the tip of the iceberg,” as the majority of victims never formally report violent experiences, according to Raj.

Instead of relying on crime data, Raj and her research team surveyed a representative sample of adults across the state and used their responses to estimate population rates. They collected data from 2,285 Californians in March 2022.

The report found, perhaps unsurprisingly, significant gender differences in experiencing and perpetrating violence. Men are more likely than women to have experienced physical violence, while women are more likely to have been a victim of sexual violence.

The research also found that sexual abuse can lead to serious and lasting consequences for victims, such as anxiety, depression and suicidality (which refers to deliberately harming oneself with the intention of dying). In fact, more than half of the women surveyed who had experienced sexual assault in the past two years said they had symptoms of anxiety or depression. Future programs to prevent sexual violence and help victims heal need to target women to address the gendered nature of violence, Raj said.

Although violence is becoming a crisis in California, the report says not enough is being done to prevent it. For example, the state’s budget included $15 million in funding for domestic and sexual violence prevention in 2021, but Raj indicated that is not being renewed this year.

She also argued that violence should be viewed as a public health issue, a categorization that she said could help be taken more seriously by lawmakers.

“It’s a very clear health issue – we found that violence is closely related to mental illness and suicidality,” Raj said. “Given that we already know that mental health issues and suicidality are on the rise, it just goes to show that you can’t really address the mental health issues and trauma that people are dealing with at increasing rates , without considering the role of violence.”

Physical violence, sexual violence, and intimate partner violence were more likely among Californians who faced eviction in the past year or financial hardship, and those with a history of homelessness or incarceration. The report argues that future policy must ensure that social and economic assistance programs are well-funded so that the root causes of violence can be addressed.

Social programs designed to address homelessness, food insecurity and addiction are already tied to states’ most vulnerable populations, Raj pointed out. Because these same populations face disproportionately high rates of violence, resources to support victims of violence must be incorporated into these programs. Possible community partners include: California Coalition Against Sexual Assault and on California Violence Prevention Network.

Photo: Sturti, Getty Images

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