The Relationship between Victimization and Cognitive Schemata among Episodically Homeless, Seriously Mentally Ill Women

Article excerpt

This study explored the extent to which specific aspects of violent victimization are associated with cognitive schemata in the context of ongoing, often lifelong, trauma and negative life events. Specifically, we examined the relationships between cognitive schemata (safety, self- and other esteem, intimacy, and trust) and three dimensions of physical and sexual assault histories (recentness, frequency, and variety) among 91 predominantly African American, episodically homeless, seriously mentally ill women. Findings indicated that even in the context of pervasive violence, more frequent, recent, and varied abuse was associated with more negative cognitive schemata. We discuss these findings in the context of research and practice with disenfranchised populations at high risk for violent victimization.

Recent conceptualizations of response to trauma have highlighted the ways in which a traumatic event or condition may invalidate or alter otherwise "healthy" or "positive"1 fundamental beliefs or schemata, including beliefs that the world is benevolent and meaningful, that people are trustworthy and worth relating to, and that the self is worthy (Epstein, 1991, 1994; Horowitz, 1986, 1991; Janoff-Bulman, 1989, 1992; McCann & Pearlman, 1990; McCann, Sakheim, & Abrahamson, 1988; Roth, Lebowitz, & DeRosa, in press). While theories regarding the impact of trauma on cognitive schemata, and the empirical research that supports them (Janoff-Bulman, 1989, 1992; Norris & Kaniasty, 1991), provide a compelling and useful way to understand responses to trauma among some populations, these theories rest on several assumptions that may be less valid for other populations.

Most important, these theories assume, without making these assumptions explicit, that (1) traumatic experiences are one-time events or circumscribed experiences, rather than ongoing conditions; (2) victims of traumatic events have not experienced prior trauma; (3) victims have not experienced multiple and ongoing life stressors such as discrimination or homelessness; and thus, (4) prior to a traumatic event, individuals have relatively positive beliefs about themselves and others (for a notable exception, see Roth, Lebowitz, & DeRosa, in press). Although these assumptions may be valid for many women among the mainstream populations that are usually studied, they do not hold for extremely disenfranchised populations such as those who are homeless, mentally ill, or otherwise marginalized.

Homeless women with serious mental disorders, for example, frequently face a choice between the dangers of life on the street and the hazards of overcrowded, unsafe, and poorly supervised shelters (Hope & Young, 1986; Stefl, 1987). Wherever they choose to live, they may be unable to get enough to eat or enough sleep (Rosnow, Shaw, & Concord, 1985), and be socially isolated (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988; Wood, Valdez, Hayashi, & Shen, 1990), distrustful (Goodman, 199la), and vulnerable to serious physical injury and victimization (Gelberg & Linn, 1988; Padgett & Struening, 1992).

For many homeless women, these highly physically and emotionally impoverished conditions began in childhood. Compared to housed women, homeless women report a significantly greater likelihood of having spent time in a foster or group home (D'Ercole & Struening, 1990; Goodman, 1991b; Wood et al., 1990), having run away for a week or more (Shinn, Knickman & Weitzman, 1991), having come from homes where their parents abused drugs or alcohol (Wood et al., 1990), and having been abused as children (Bassuk & Rosenberg, 1988; Shinn, Knickman, & Weitzman, 1991). Indeed, in a recent study of episodically homeless, mentally ill women (Goodman, Dutton, & Harris, 1995), we found that among 99 respondents, 92% had experienced some form of child abuse, and 92% had also experienced some form of adult assault or abuse. A full 87% of the sample reported both child and adult abuse and 97% reported some form of abuse over the lifespan. …