Violence in California has been escalating since 2020, according to a 33-page report released last week by researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine. The report — the only multi-year statewide assessment of violence — revealed that nearly 20% of Californians experienced physical or sexual violence in the past year.
Even though violence is on the rise, statewide violence prevention programs are ill-funded and treated as a non-priority, said Anita Raj, the report’s principal investigator, in an interview. She advocated for policymakers to dedicate more money and effort to violence prevention programs that address the root causes of the state’s increasing levels of violence. The best way to prevent violence is by improving the financial, social and emotional security of vulnerable populations, Raj argued.
Much of the way that violence is described and discussed stems from crime data. This is problematic and “only the tip of the iceberg” because 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 disparities in the experience and perpetration of violence. Men are more likely than their female counterparts to have experienced physical violence, whereas women are more to have been the victim of sexual violence.
The research also found that sexual violence can lead to serious and lasting consequences for victims, such as anxiety, depression and suicidality (which refers to purposely hurting oneself with the intent to die). In fact, more than half of female respondents who experienced sexual violence in the past two years said they have symptoms of anxiety or depression. Future programs to prevent sexual violence and help victims heal should be targeted toward women to address the gendered nature of violence, Raj said.
Even though violence is becoming more of a crisis in California, the report said 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 pointed out that is not being renewed this year.
She also argued that violence needs to be regarded as a public health issue — a categorization she thinks might help it to be taken more seriously by lawmakers.
“It’s a very clear health issue — we found that violence is heavily linked to mental health conditions and suicidality,” Raj said. “Given we already know that mental health concerns and suicidality have been increasing, this just brings to light that you can’t really address the mental health and trauma issues that people are facing at rising rates without considering the role of violence.”
Physical violence, sexual violence and intimate partner violence were more likely among Californians who faced past year eviction or financial distress, as well as those with history of homelessness or incarceration. The report argued that future policy must ensure that social and economic welfare programs are well-funded so that root causes of violence can be addressed.
Social programs designed to address homelessness, food insecurity and addiction are already tied to the states’ most vulnerable populations, Raj pointed out. Since these same populations face disproportionately high levels of violence, support resources for victims of violence should be incorporated into these programs. Possible community partners include the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the California Violence Prevention Network.
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