That there is a clear link between mental illness and domestic violence is indisuputable. Most members of society agree that such a link exists and needs to be addressed, some with graphic tales to accompany their position. The nature of that link, though, runs contrary to popular claims. As with other generally accepted beliefs about mental health and violence, the focus on the connection between mental illness and domestic violence tends to be on the alleged tendency of mentally ill people to commit acts of violence. People are informed that mentally ill partners are dangerous, that schizophrenic or bipolar people are not safe to be in relationships with because they will be abusive. Borderline personality disorder in particular is blamed for abusive relationships and family dynamics.
The fact of the matter is that while there is a connection between mental illness and domestic violence, it runs in the opposite direction. Mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of domestic violence; this .pdf handout on the subject points out that women in particular are at especially high risk. In surveys of mentally ill women, very large percentages reported experiences of domestic violence and abuse, in numbers of 50% and higher in many cases. This is not an epidemic of abuse caused by expressions of mental illness, but a serious social problem and threat for people with mental illness, because the statistics in the other direction, on reports of violence committed by people with mental illness, are miniscule by comparison.
Mentally ill women are viewed as legitimate targets, which is why they are more likely to experience domestic violence, sexual assault, and other abuses. This is particularly stark for women with severe mental illnesses, and women who are vulnerable because of homelessness and other issues, like physical disabilities to accompany their mental health conditions. People viewed as targets tend to become targets, and when they are targeted, the people who should theoretically be protecting and advocating for them may fall short on the job. Police officers, for instance, don’t take claims of domestic violence and assault as seriously when they come from mentally ill women, particularly if their partners occupy positions of power; are members of the police force, for example.
This creates a feedback effect, as women experience violence because they are targeted for it and do not get support, thus informing their abusers that they were absolutely correct when they chose their targets. It is safe to keep abusing their partners without fear of the consequences, because society doesn’t care. In fact, society may even create excuses. Partners of mentally ill people receive constant reinforcement in reminders about how hard it must be, how brave and courageous they are to stick with their partners, the great services they are offering as caregivers. These messages can contribute to a feeling of ownership and entitlement, as well as anger. Why aren’t their partners more grateful for all the kind things that they do?
Popular perceptions of mental illness include the idea that mentally ill people are ‘difficult.’ Hard to get along with, impossible to engage in a meaningful way, too hard to be around. Work. Relationships with mentally ill people are framed as grinding work without end and this can create a situation where abuse is excused. We all know it’s not right to hit a partner, for instance, but if that partner is ‘acting crazy,’ you can see how it might happen. You could see how many people need to be restrained for their own good or calmed down with a brisk slap. It’s not nice, but you do what you have to do and surely you feel awful, but. This kind of logic is so far off the slippery slope it might as well be all the way at the bottom of the abyss, but it’s parroted and promoted, which means that abusive partners can turn to it when they want to justify their behaviour.
For mentally ill people, there is a constant reminder that you are not good enough for relationships, you don’t deserve them, and thus you need to cling to what you’ve got. You should stay with an abusive partner because it’s better than nothing and you may not be able to find another relationship. And often, such relationships cultivate dependency, as well. People may be reliant on their partners to assist them with tasks of daily living, which means they cannot leave, and their framing as a burden may lead them to think they deserve the abuse because they’re such a drag on the relationship. Economic abuse is also not uncommon, as partners of mentally ill people may take their paycheques or benefits from them, arguing that they can take care of the money more responsibly, or need some compensation for all the work that they do. When someone does try to leave a relationship, no money is available, and attempts to leave can subject you to the risk of more abuse as punishment, and thus, you stay where you are. Even though it is dangerous.
The persistent social attitude that the danger in relationships with mentally ill people comes from the person with mental illness makes it very difficult to deconstruct and combat this particular link between violence and mental illness. This framing makes it easy to dismiss violence against mentally ill people as an isolated outlier, rather than evidence of a systemic social problem, because everyone knows that mentally ill people are violent and dangerous and frightening. We need to take measures to protect the rest of society from them, not the other way around, goes the popular logic, and thus a group of people identified and targeted as victims will continue to experience abuse at shocking rates.