Abuse and Mental Illness: Is There a Connection?

Mental-IllnessThis post was written by Alexander, one of our digital services advocates

A common assumption we hear at The Hotline is that abuse is caused by a partner’s mental health condition, for example: bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), narcissistic personality, borderline personality or antisocial personality. While these are serious mental health conditions, they do not cause abuse. Nothing in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM 5) states that a mental illness solely causes a partner to be abusive in a relationship; however, there are a select few diagnoses that can increase the risk of abusive patterns to show up in a relationship and in other areas of life. Mental illness tends to impact all areas of a person’s life, such as work, interactions with friends, family engagement and personal relationships. In contrast, abuse primarily impacts personal relationships and typically not the other areas of life. Abusive behavior in an intimate partner relationship and mental illness are two separate entities.

Since abusive behaviors happen primarily in one’s intimate partner relationship, it’s common that an abusive partner will not show their negative or harmful behaviors with friends, coworkers or family members. An abusive partner tends to put on what can be considered a “fake mask” for the rest of the world to see. When it’s just the victim and the abusive partner together, that mask comes off and the victim sees a different side that others aren’t allowed to see. The impact of being the only person to see this behavior is often isolating for the victim, as they may think (or the abusive person may even say) that no one else will believe them, since no one else has witnessed the abusive behaviors. This also makes it easier for the abusive person to make their partner feel responsible for their abusive behavior, which reinforces the isolation.

Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That? (2002), clarifies that an abusive partner’s “value system is unhealthy, not their psychology” (p. 38). Yes, it can appear like an abusive partner has a mental illness when they get upset and use physical or verbal abuse. If the abuse were caused by a mental illness, the partner would also yell at and/or hit their family members, friends and coworkers when upset. With domestic abuse, however, the abuser usually yells at and/or hits only their partner.

Abuse and mental illness can coincide. There are cases of individuals who have mental illness and are also abusive to their partners. There are also many individuals who have a mental illness and are healthy and supportive partners. If your partner does have a mental illness and is abusive towards you, it’s important to keep in mind that the mental illness and abusive behaviors need to be addressed separately by the abusive partner. It is the abusive partner’s responsibility to seek out support and create their own plan for managing their mental illness and be accountable for their abusive behavior. If your partner is not owning up to their actions, is not admitting to how much they’re hurting you, and is not seeking out professional help then that’s a sign that your partner isn’t willing to change. If that’s the case, then the abuse in the relationship tends to continue and escalate over time.

The following questions may help clarify whether what your partner is doing is abuse or abuse with mental illness:

  • Does my partner yell or scream at others (friends, coworkers, family members) outside of our relationship?
  • Does my partner make others check in to see where they’re at and who they’re with?
  • Does my partner hit others outside of our relationship?
  • Does my partner minimize or verbally tear down others?
  • Does my partner pressure others to do things that they aren’t okay with?
  • Does my partner make threats to others when they say something my partner doesn’t agree with?

If you answered no to most of the questions, then most likely your partner is abusive without mental illness. If you answered yes to most of the questions, then it’s possible your partner is abusive and also may be experiencing some form of mental health issue or illness. Lundy Bancroft’s book, Should I Stay or Should I Go?, has a chapter on untangling a partner’s mental health issues from abusive behaviors. Additionally, connecting with a support network, including a domestic violence advocate or counselor who specializes in domestic violence may help support you in determining your options.

Even if your partner does have a mental illness, there is NEVER an excuse for abuse. Abuse is a choice someone makes in order to maintain power and control over a partner. If a partner is abusive towards you, regardless of whether they have a mental illness or not, they have no right to treat you in that manner. You always deserve to have a healthy, loving, supportive, trusting and safe relationship 100% of the time.

If you have any questions or concerns after reading this post, please feel free to reach out to one of our advocates by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) any time or chatting online from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. CT.


When Your Partner Threatens Suicide

partner-suicide“I’ll kill myself if you leave me.”

It seems like a no-win situation. When someone you’re close to says something like this, it can feel like the world just stopped spinning.

People who have a mental illness, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, typically have a higher risk for suicide. Depression, a history of substance abuse, and other disorders carry risks as well. If your partner truly wishes to die and has a plan and intention to follow through, get immediate help. Call your local emergency number, or call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

But what if your partner regularly threatens suicide, particularly whenever you’re not doing something he or she wants you to do, or when you’re trying to leave the relationship? First, understand that this is a form of emotional abuse: your partner is trying to manipulate you by playing on your feelings of love and fear for them. You might get angry when this happens, but you also might feel like you have to give in to them in order to avoid a potential tragedy. When your partner makes these threats repeatedly, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and possibly help your partner as well.

Tell your partner you care about them, but stick to your boundaries. Giving in to threats over and over does not make a relationship healthy, and it only creates anger and resentment on your end. You could say something like, “You know I care about you very much, and I understand you’re upset right now, but I will not _____.”

Put the choice to live or die where it belongs – on your partner. You can’t be responsible for another person’s actions, no matter what – and this includes when your partner chooses to be abusive. An optional response is: “I think our relationship should be based on love and respect, not threats. I really care about you, but this is your choice and I can’t stop you from making it.”

Remember that no matter what your partner says, you don’t have to prove anything. Even though they might be saying something like, “If you really loved me, you’d stop me from killing myself,” the real truth is that there are unhealthy patterns in your relationship. Until those unhealthy patterns are addressed, they will most likely continue no matter how many times you give in to your partner’s demands.

If your partner often says they’re going to kill themselves when things aren’t going their way, they’re not showing you love – they’re likely trying to control your actions. If this is the case, consider the tips above and try to get help where you can. You might try talking to a counselor or other professional therapist, if that’s an option for you. But remember, you are not your partner’s counselor, and you can’t force your partner to get help if they don’t want to. They have to make that choice for themselves.

Please keep in mind that these tips may not be right for everyone; you know your own situation best. If you’d like to talk through these tips with one of our advocates, please get in touch with us by phone 24/7 or online chat everyday from 7am-2am CST. We’re here for you!

stay for the kids

50 Obstacles to Leaving: 21-30

“Why don’t you just leave the relationship?”

According to Sarah Buel: “This question has been fueled by those who believe that remaining with a batterer indicates stupidity, masochism, or codependence. Far from being accurate, such labels prove dangerous to victims because they tend to absolve batterers of responsibility for their crimes.

There are many different reasons that a victim may stay in an abusive relationship. This week to shed some light on the frequently asked question of why a victim doesn’t just leave, we’re taking a closer look at 50 different obstacles that prevent someone from leaving. Follow along on our blog throughout the week to read about all of them.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call us toll-free and confidentially at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) to speak confidentially with an advocate.

21. Keeping the Family Together: Victims believe it is in their children’s best interest to have their father or a male role model in the family.

22. Illiterate Victims: Illiterate victims may be forced to rely on the literate batterer for everyday survival.

23. Incarcerated or Newly Released Abuse Victims: Such victims often don’t have support systems to assist them with re-entry to the community. Parole officers may require that they return home if that appears to be a stable environment.

24. Law Enforcement Officer: If the perpetrator is a law enforcement officer, the victim may fear that other officers will refuse to assist or believe them if they come forward.

25. Lesbian and Gay Victims: Victims may feel silenced if disclosing their sexual orientation (to qualify for a protective order) could result in losing their job, family, and home.

26. Low Self-Esteem: Victims may believe they deserve no better than the abuse they receive.

27. Love: Since many batterers are initially charming, victims fall in love and may have difficulty altering their feelings with the first sign of a problem.

28. Mediation: Mediation can put the victim in the dangerous position of incurring the batterer’s wrath for disclosing the extent of the violence.

29. Medical Problems: The victim must stay with the batterer to obtain medical services, especially if they share insurance.

30. Mentally Ill Victims: Victims face negative societal stereotypes in addition to the batterer’s taunts that the victim is crazy and nobody will believe anything that they say.

mental health awareness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

Mental illness affects 1 in 4 or nearly 60 million Americans every year.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to discuss mental health and to work to end the shame and stigma that often comes with these illnesses.

When people think about mental illness in relation to domestic violence, it’s generally believed that individuals living with mental illnesses are the ones committing the acts of violence. However, the connection more commonly runs the other way, with large percentages of those who suffer from mental illnesses becoming, or having been, the victims of domestic violence.

Mental health issues can arise as a result of intimate partner violence. On average, more than half of women seen in mental health settings are being or have been abused by an intimate partner. Recent studies of women who experienced abuse found that up to 84% suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, 77% suffered from depression, and 75% suffered from anxiety.

Domestic violence victims with mental health issues also face many barriers, such as discrimination and stigmatization by the police, the legal system, health facilities and more.

Join us in taking time this month to educate yourself about mental illness and the stigma that often accompanies it. It is our hope that changing attitudes surrounding mental illness will allow those that suffer to be able to get the help and support they deserve.

What Can You Do?

Find your local National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) affiliate and NAMI state organization here.

Pay attention to your own mental health. If you feel like you may be suffering from a mental health condition, talk to someone you know and trust. Consult your health care provider or call 1-800-622-HELP to find treatment services nearby.

Help change the stigma associated with mental illness by learning more and showing compassion for those who are struggling with mental health issues.

Look for small ways to incorporate mental health awareness into your everyday life, whether this is listening actively to someone sharing how they’re feeling with you, or avoiding terminology that diminishes mental health problems (like “crazy”).

Further Resources and Reading

“Domestic Violence and Mental Illness: ‘I Have Honestly Never Felt So Alone in My Life’” by Faridah Newman

National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)