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.

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


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

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

Faridah runs the mental health blog Mind Over Matter Zine. She tweets @FaridahNewman.


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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.