MyStudentBody - Alcohol, Mental Illness and Violence

Alcohol, Mental Illness, and Violence

A young man in a hooded sweatshirt looking upset

According to the United States Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), each year approximately 61 out of every 1,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of a violent crime; violent crime is defined as rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault. (The NCVS collects information through a yearly household survey, and it includes incidents that may not have been reported to law enforcement. Murder statistics are not included, however, because the survey data is collected from interviews with victims.)

By comparison, in 2009, NCVS found that about 17 of every 1,000 U.S. adults over the age of 12 had been victims of violent crime.  College students become victims significantly more often than the general adult population.

Because of perceived weaknesses in NCVS' ability to collect accurate data on sexual assault, the Department of Justice conducted a survey of college women in 1997 that defined certain behaviors as sexual assault or rape, regardless of how the victim categorized the incident. In the resulting National College Women Sexual Victimization (NCWSV) study, 3% of college women reported experiencing either a completed or an attempted rape during a targeted seven-month period. The rate of victimization was 28 rapes per 1,000 female students.

The study also asked respondents about ten other types of sexual victimization, including threats and coercion. For these categories, the incident rate per 1,000 female students ranged from a low of 10 (for threats of rape) to a high of 66 (for attempted sexual contact without force). Overall, 16% of female students experienced rape, or another form of sexual victimization, over the seven months covered by the survey.

Campuses per se are generally safer than the outside world for students, according to the NCVS statistics; between 1995 and 2002, 93% of violent crimes that had students as victims took place off-campus.

College students are less likely to become victims of violent crimes than others in their age group who are not in college; non-collegians have a victimization rate of 75 out of 1,000 per year. Students are less likely than non-students to be victims of robbery, aggravated assault, or simple assault, and about equally likely to be victims of rape or sexual assault.

For both students and non-students, the rate of violent victimization fell between 1995 and 2002. The exception once again is the rate of rape and sexual assault, which remained constant.

The Role of Alcohol in Violent Crime

There is a strong correlation between the use of alcohol and crimes against students. For example, the NCVS found that between 1995 and 2002, 41% of offenders in violent crimes against students were perceived to be using alcohol or drugs at the time of the crime. Studies from the 1980s and 90s found that both victims and perpetrators of sexual assaults among college students were likely to have been drinking alcohol; in some studies, up to 97% of student sexual assaults involved drinking.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 600,000 students are assaulted annually by another student who has been drinking, and approximately 70,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults or date rapes each year.

The relationship between drinking and crime, however, is not a clear matter of cause-and-effect. While drinking may lower inhibitions in some students and make others less able to protect themselves, the use of alcohol is usually only one factor in the context of crime.

Researchers have suggested a complex model in which alcohol can play multiple roles: providing an excuse for what is actually deliberate behavior; and invoking a double standard in sexual assaults that holds drinking women more responsible for staving off assaults, but lets drinking men off the hook for their actions.

We may never predict exactly how alcohol, drugs, and violence will connect in a specific situation or with a certain individual, but many campus prevention efforts now commonly address the effects on students of all three categories. Violence on campus responds to a prevention approach similar to alcohol and drug abuse prevention—that is, an approach that addresses social norms, reduces opportunities for these behaviors, and engages students and others across the community in a long-term effort. The MyStudentBody Essentials course provides motivational assessments and education about alcohol, licit and illicit drugs, and sexual violence prevention; its goal is to help reduce student risks in these vital areas.

The Role of Mental Health

Colleges have been forced to rethink their role in the care of students with mental health problems, following some devastating -- and highly-publicized -- incidents of violence. According to an article in the New York Times, Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed in April 2007 by a senior with a long history of mental illness, subsequently added $1 million to its annual mental health budget.

The Virginia Tech incident led to widespread changes in the way that schools notify students of potential emergencies. It also prompted the U.S. Department of Education to amend its Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, giving colleges wider latitude in sharing student information.

Increasingly, behavioral health professionals see substance abuse, mental and emotional illness, and violence as interrelated. Students with depression and other indicators of poor mental health are at greater risk for violence, victimization, and the high-risk use of alcohol and other substances. A campus environment that promotes student health, safety, respect, and responsibility can help reduce these interrelated risk factors.

Reducing the Risks of Campus Violence

Studies estimate that 50%-80% of violence on campus is alcohol-related, so it is reasonable to expect that a reduction in drinking behavior will help to reduce both violence and student victimization. Recommended steps for reducing alcohol and drug use on campus include:

  • Promote alcohol- and drug-free social, recreational, and extracurricular activities.
  • Encourage students to engage in public service.
  • Create a social, academic, and residential environment that promotes healthy social norms with respect to drinking, drug use, relationships, and violence.
  • Restrict alcohol marketing and promotion on campus.
  • Take steps to limit the availability of alcohol on and near campus.
  • Enforce campus policies and state and local laws regarding drugs, alcohol, driving under the influence, and firearms and other weapons.

To address student mental health as a factor in preventing violence:

  • Increase social connection among students and others in the campus community.
  • Improve students' life skills with respect to relationships, work habits, and emotional maturity.
  • Improved problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution all help to reduce risk.
  • Improve your campus' crisis-response capabilities. Make sure campus police, health services, and academic advisors have ways to communicate with one another in the event of a health or safety emergency.
  • Identify students in distress or at risk for suicide or violence.
  • Encourage help-seeking behavior.
  • Give students the tools to find help for themselves and for peers.
  • Just as you restrict campus access to alcohol and drugs, restrict access to lethal means of violence.
  • Give students access to appropriate mental health and substance abuse services. There are a variety of assessment and referral strategies that can quickly connect help-seeking students to suitable resources.


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Baum K, Klaus P. (2005). Violent Victimization of College Students, 1995-2002. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: National Crime Victimization Survey. Retrieved December 13, 2011, from

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Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. (2008). Interpersonal Violence and Alcohol and Other Drug Use. Retrieved December 13, 2011, from

Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. (2005). Preventing Violence and Promoting Safety in Higher Education Settings: Overview of a Comprehensive Approach. Retrieved December 13, 2011, from

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U.S. Department of Education. Campus Security website.