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

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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

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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.