Mental Illness and the Link to Domestic Violence

With so many eyes today fixed on the mentally ill as perpetrators of violence, a recently published study from the United Kingdom redirects attention to a much more common problem – the mentally ill as victims of violence. According to British crime reports, 27 percent of women there are exposed to spousal abuse at some point in their lives. For British men that statistic was 17 percent. However, for both men and women, having a mental illness makes it even more likely that they will one day experience domestic violence. The study was actually a formal review of 41 previous studies on the subject conducted around the globe. The researchers compared rates of domestic violence according to gender and according to mental health condition and then compared those rates to rates of violence against men and women without mental illness. The clear result was that having a mental illness puts both men and women at greater risk for suffering instances of domestic violence. The results for women according to their mental health condition were as follows:

  • Women with Post-traumatic stress disorder were found to be seven times more likely to suffer partner or spousal abuse. The estimated prevalence of abuse for women with PTSD was over 60 percent.
  • Women with an anxiety disorder were three and a half times more susceptible to domestic violence. Estimates are that prevalence for abuse in the home for these women is 27.6 percent.
  • For women with depression the likelihood of experiencing domestic violence is two and one half times greater than that of non-depressed women and this happens in an estimated 46 percent of cases.

The problem of domestic violence is elevated for women with any mental health disorder whether it is an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder or a host of other mental illnesses. The fact is that women who have a mental health disorder are more likely to suffer from domestic violence compared to women without mental illness. The review found that men with mental illness are also more often involved in cases of domestic violence over men without those illnesses. Nevertheless, the prevalence of these instances were lower for men compared to women and men were not as often victims of repeated, severe abuse. The link between mental illness and experiences of abuse/violence within the home points to a couple of inferences: first that partner abuse may contribute to the development of mental illness and second that those with a mental illness are certainly more vulnerable to occasions of domestic violence. The study highlights the onus on doctors treating patients for mental illness to be aware of the risk for domestic violence and to look for signs that it may be occurring. In addition, those treating patients who are obvious victims of domestic violence should likewise be alert to the possible need for the patient to also receive mental health counseling.

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