Thursday, May 13, 2010

Are You at Risk for a Violent Death?

The Centers for Disease Control has just come out with a comprehensive 16 state review of violent deaths in 2007.  This may sound about as thrilling to you as watching pain peel off a barn (or perhaps a comprehensive study of paint peeling off a barn), but there's actually some very interesting information contained in this report.  In particular, it challenges some of our assumptions about people who die violently.  This is interesting (at least to me), because part of what helps us deal with the threat of violence is convincing ourselves that it happens to other people.  On the flip side, to the extent that we believe it does happen to people like us, it raises our anxiety level quite a bit.  This report allows us to work off of facts rather than assumptions, which is generally a good thing.

One of the first things that lept out at me from this report is the fact that you are less likely to die by murder than you are by suicide.  I guess as I think about it that makes sense, but it certainly wasn't my gut-level prediction.  Most of us see suicide as a risk we can avoid -- we probably overestimate how much this is true.  We see murder as something that just happens, and that scares us.  But this report tells us that the thing we think we can control is actually more likely.  This may give some of us a (perhaps false) sense of security.

Another thing that struck me is that people who die by both suicide and homicide have about a 1 in 3 chance of having alcohol in their system when they die.  People who kill themselves, however, are about 250% more likely than people who are murdered to have other drugs in their systems.  Again, these are risks that we can control -- don't drink, don't do drugs, and maybe you won't die.

Not surprisingly, people who kill themselves have a very high incidence of mental illness, with more than 40% of them having a depressed mood before they died.  What might surprise you is that about 30% of people who die by suicide are taking antidepressants, compared to about 4% of those who are murdered.  Does this mean that antidepressants cause suicide?  Not necessarily.  People who are depressed are at risk for suicide.  People who are depressed are also more likely to be taking antidepressants.  That doesn't mean antidepressants are a risk for suicide.

Perhaps the most startling finding in this study has to do with the age at which people are most likely to be murdered.  The highest risk age group for men is 20-24. 
Men are, overall, 3 times more likely to be murdered than women, so, generally, being female is a protective factor.  What is shocking (at least to me) is that the highest risk age group for females is less than one year.  The time of a woman's life when she is most likely to be murdered is in infancy.  She is twice as likely to be murdered then as when she is in her 20's.  That very much goes against the core belief many of us have that children don't die and that people don't hurt children.  Apparently, they really do.

Finally, the look at precipitating factors for homicide in this report brings home rather strongly that murder is not, in fact, random.  For men, the most common precipitating factor to their murder is an argument or other conflict about something other than money.  For women, more than half of murders are the result of violence by their partner.  Arguments about money or property, gang violence, and even drug violence are much less likely.  About 1/3 of murders happen as part of another crime such as robbery.  Random violence accounts for less than one percent of homicides.

So, now that you've read all about the peeling paint, why does this matter?  It matters because we make assumptions every day about what is dangerous in the world and what is not.  We pick which neighborhoods we will or won't walk through at night and how many locks to have on our doors based on our perception that the danger will come to us if we make the wrong choices.  Certainly, doing things like these lessens our risk.  We spend much less time and psychological energy, however, thinking about how to protect ourselves from the much more likely dangers -- the people we live with or spend time with, the substances we consume, and our own mental health.  Maybe it's time for a little attitude adjustment.


Colleen said...

I'm confused...a woman is more than twice as likely to be murdered when she is an infant than a woman in her 20s, and a woman is more than twice as likely to be murdered by her partner than randomly?

So...that means for females, 1/2 the murders are of infants, 1/4 are of women being murdered by partners, and somewhat less than 1/4 in other situations? Or am I really confused?

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

Statistics are confusing, aren't they? (Particularly the way I present them).

Don't confuse the homicide RATE with the PERCENTAGE of homicides. More than half of all homicides where the victim is female are intimate partner violence. OTOH, only about 4.5% percent of murders of females are infants under 1. 11.2% are women between 20 and 24.

If you look at the homicide RATE, on the other hand, there are 8.2 deaths by homicide for every 100,000 female babies under 1, and 4.2 per 100,000 for women between 20 and 24. The difference between percentage and rate comes because, while there are fewer murders of babies under 1, there are also fewer people to begin with -- it's a 1 year age group rather than a 4 year age group.

So your stats are partially right and partially wrong. 50% of female homicides are intimate partner violence. About 5% are babies under 1 (10% are children under 15). The rest are "something else."

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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