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Improving mental health for older victims of crime

Published: 23 August 2019

Psychiatric researchers funded by NIHR are working with the Metropolitan Police and mental health charity Mind, to trial a new intervention aimed at reducing the distressing psychological outcomes, known to be prevalent among older victims of crime.

Early results from the study led by University College London (UCL) suggest that close to one in five older victims of crime continue to experience distress three months after the incident, with continued depressive or anxiety symptoms.

The researchers say there’s an urgent need for better, evidence-based support.

“Victims of crime are often deeply affected, and the crime can trigger mental illness for some people. Older adults are often more vulnerable, partly due to social and physical problems associated with old age, but there isn’t enough data on just how common crime-induced mental health issues are for older people,” said the trial’s principal investigator, Dr Marc Serfaty, Associate Professor, UCL Psychiatry.

Being the target of a crime can be devastating, particularly for older people; one small study found that older victims of a burglary are 2.5 times more likely to die or move into a nursing home within a year of the crime.*

Officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Safer Neighbourhoods Teams are now meeting victims over 65 years of age who have been a victim of a crime, across nine London boroughs, within one month of the crime to screen them for significant distress.

If people are identified as significantly affected by the crime, officers will provide them with information about how to seek help, such as advising a GP visit. Three months later, a UCL researcher will contact them to see what type of help they have sought, and to assess whether their psychological distress has subsided or persisted.

Those who continue to experience psychological distress are invited to participate in the randomised controlled trial. Participants either receive usual care (mainly GP support), or usual care plus the Victim Improvement Package designed for the study, which consists of up to ten sessions of talk therapy using a newly designed cognitive behavioural approach, provided by a therapist from Mind over three months.

The UCL research team will be assessing the participants after the treatment intervention to see if their symptoms of depression or anxiety have improved, and will also be researching which factors make people more vulnerable to the impacts of crime.

An earlier pilot study with 26 participants found that the approach did appear to reduce distress, so the team now aims to recruit 230 people to confirm the findings. So far over 2,900 older victims of crime have been visited by the Safer Neighbourhood Teams, more than 1,100 have been identified as being significantly affected at the time of the crime and over half of these continue to be distressed. 90 people have begun the trial.

“Many older victims may not always be aware of the impact of crime and may not come forward for help. Whilst many people recover, evidence suggests that for many others, symptoms continue without treatment.” added Dr Serfaty.

The project is supported by Age UK Camden who have been seeking out the views of older people.

The study is funded by the NIHR’s Public Health Research (PHR) Programme. More information on the study is available on the NIHR Journals Library website.


* Donaldson, R. (2003). Experiences of older burglary victims. Home Office Findings, 198, 1–4

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