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Domestic violence and mental illness: "I have honestly never felt so alone in my life"

Domestic violence, especially related to an intimate partner, is inextricably connected to mental illness. Faridah Newman explains how mental illness can often represent a vulnerability which is exploited by abusive partners.

Silhouettes representing French victims of domestic violence. Photograph: Getty Images

Though stigmatised as "unstable" and "dangerous", mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime1, and more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence than the general population2.

Intimate partner violence (physical, emotional, psychological, sexual or economic abuse by a romantic partner or relation) is an issue that rears its head regularly on the mental health blog that I run, Mind Over Matter Zine. With nearly 40,000 subscribers, I've come to receive regular contact from people who may be seeking help but afraid of, frustrated with, or without access to conventional mental health services. Many have survived or are currently in abusive relationships.

The links between mental illness and intimate partner violence are all too well known. It is estimated that at least 60 per cent of female mental health service users are survivors3; 70 per cent in inpatient settings4. Mental health problems are usually seen as an adverse consequence of abuse but while gene-environment interaction studies have revealed that stressful life events like abuse can "unlock" genetic risks to certain mental illnesses5, describing the relationship as one-directional is simplistic and misleading. Mental illness can often represent a vulnerability which is exploited by abusive partners in ways similar to those experienced by people with physical and learning disabilities. (Women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience domestic violence as non-disabled women, and over one in ten young men with a longstanding ilness or disability say they have been assaulted by a partner in the previous year6).

The majority of people I've spoken to through the blog have said they were ill before their abusive relationship began, with some suspecting that their mental health problems may have been a factor that attracted their partner to them. Debbie*, who has multiple diagnoses including Bipolar Disorder and Schizoaffective Disorder, said: "He told me I was beautiful because I was broken. I saw him as a ray of light, at the time."

Jess* has since recognised that her relationship was one of a continuing pattern for her partner: "When we met I was reclusive and hopeless, and he took an intensive caretaker role toward me. Before me, he fostered another young woman in the same way, and as I moved closer to leaving the relationship, he did the same again with another. Both had mental health problems." Her feelings of isolation and loneliness at the time of meeting her partner was shared by others. Forced isolation from support systems is a form of abuse common to many violent relationships; is this why someone with abusive tendencies might seek already isolated romantic interests? David*, who was depressed and suicidal when he met his partner said, "He met me at my lowest and I think this afforded him the power dynamic he was looking for. I don't think he'd be interested in me now that I'm happier, more confident and outgoing."

Having myself witnessed a friend's partner try to dismiss her report of physical violence to the police on the grounds that she was "mental", I am upset but not surprised to find similar experiences shared with me online. Abusers minimise the gravity of the violence, or deny it happened at all using their partner's illness as an excuse. Anna* said, "When I actually sought out some help because I could barely walk from being pushed to the floor multiple times and had marks all over my face from being grabbed by the head, he tried to say that I had scratched myself because I'm "crazy". Luckily, my one confidant knew he was lying, but I could see that kind of thing working, which terrifies me to the core." 

The overwhelming feeling I get when reading back through the blog's inbox is that of people slipping through the cracks of service provision, with mental health services viewing abuse as the remit of survivor's services, and survivor's services reluctant or unsure how to cope with people with pre-existing severe mental illnesses.

Research has shown that many mental health professionals do not view enquiry about domestic violence as part of their role or within their competence7. Indeed, one person who wrote to me said that within therapy this was simply ignored, "I disclosed my situation of current and long-standing abuse only for her to not acknowledge this at all, move on, and never mention it again." When Debbie* was driven to attempt suicide after an evening of particularly acute violence, her husband's claims that she was refusing to take her psychiatric medication were believed and her disclosure again ignored, "I was taken to the ER for observation, where I pleaded with the nurses, and told them the story. They did not make a report. I wasn’t allowed to speak with a counsellor, or a police officer. I was just 'off my meds' in their eyes." When she later managed to get a private interview at a local domestic violence shelter she said of her caseworker, "When she heard of my mental illnesses and how my husband was taking advantage of them, she outright asked me “And have you spoken with your psychiatrist?” I have honestly never felt so alone in my life."

*Some names have been changed to protect identity

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1Teplin, L. (2005) Crime victimization in adults with severe mental illness

2Trevillion, K. et al (2012) Experiences of Domestic Violence and Mental Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

3Bowstead, J. (2000Mental health and domestic violence: Audit 1999

4Phillips, K. (2000) "Sociogeopolitical issues" in Eriksson, E. et al (ed.) (2000) Mood Disorders in Women

5Caspi, A. et al (2001) Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene

6Mirlees-Black, C. (1999) Domestic Violence: Findings from a new British Crime Survey self-completion questionnaire> (pdf)

7Trevillion, K. et al (2010) Barriers and facilitators of disclosures of domestic violence by mental health service users: qualitative study