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    • Dr. Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez

Indirect Victims of Violence

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When Dr. Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez returned to his hometown in Michoacán, Mexico for a visit several years ago, he noticed that things were different. “People weren’t going outside much anymore,” he recalls. “Several of the parks in the neighborhood where I grew up were mostly abandoned.”

From 2005 to 2010, Mexico’s homicide rate more than doubled – from 9.5 to 22 deaths per 100,000 people – with the most impact felt in the northern part of the country, just south of Texas and New Mexico, according to Beltrán-Sánchez, assistant professor in the Fielding School’s Department of Community Health Sciences. But when Beltrán-Sánchez saw for himself how life had changed in his old neighborhood, even among people not personally touched by the killings, it struck him that the public health impact of the violence was more widespread than he had realized.

While a research associate at the University of Wisconsin, Beltrán-Sánchez and colleagues analyzed national surveys taken in Mexico on perceptions of public safety and found that the proportion of people living with fear of becoming victims of violence skyrocketed between 2005 and 2014. The study found that in 2014, the average Mexican adult could be projected to spend more than half of his/her remaining life in fear of violence.

Since joining the FSPH faculty in 2015, Beltrán-Sánchez has been working with his colleagues to determine whether the implications of the high levels of fear go even further than the social and economic consequences resulting from people being more likely to stay indoors. They are asking whether the reports of rising violence in the country could contribute to changes in family dynamics, potentially including increased risk for domestic violence.

“Fear imposes significant levels of stress on individuals, and we know that stress is related to a number of negative physical and mental health outcomes,” Beltrán-Sánchez says. “We are interested in learning whether people repeatedly hearing news about violence in their community leads to certain stress-related outcomes, including a reduced threshold for acting violently. That would be an unfortunate byproduct of the upsurge in violence in Mexico, but it would identify an important target for public health prevention strategies.”