The relationship between mental illness and intimate partner violence
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. So, I wanted to highlight the relationship between mental illness and intimate partner violence (IPV). While there are various ways that conversations about mental health intersect with those about IPV, this blog post will focus on the need for a better understanding of IPV experiences for people with pre-existing mental health conditions.
Conversations around IPV and mental health often focus on either the mental health of the perpetrator or the mental health effects of abuse, but rarely on people who already had mental health conditions before experiencing abuse. By breaking the stigma around mental illness, better understanding the unique experiences of survivors experiencing mental illness, and conducting relevant research, we can continue to create better programs to serve survivors experiencing mental illness.
The effects of mental illness and trauma
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 20% of the population experiences mental illness each year. While some of these cases of mental illness come about after trauma, many people experience mental illness separate from a specific trauma. Much of the research and public discourse about mental health and trauma focuses on the effects of trauma after the event or events.
However, emerging research suggests that people living with mental illness before interpersonal violence and IPV may have distinct trauma experiences.
Although there are few studies on the rates and the effects of abuse on people with pre-existing mental illnesses, what does exist suggests the importance of understanding this topic. Most research does not differentiate between victimization before or after mental illness development. However, a few studies focus on the recent victimization of severe mental illness patients. For example, a 1996 study found that 79.4% of people recently hospitalized for severe mental illness had been physically assaulted by a partner or relative in the past year. Another study examined the physical and sexual assaults of episodically homeless individuals with severe mental illness. It found that about a third had been assaulted within thirty days.
Intimate partner violence and mental illness
A British study looked at the rates of intimate partner violence, specifically among people with chronic mental illnesses who had received community services for at least a year. The researchers found that past-year IPV victimization rates were higher in the severe mental illness group than in the control group, providing early evidence to suggest that people with pre-existing mental illnesses experience higher IPV rates.
However, given that so few studies differentiate between pre-existing mental health conditions and mental health conditions that emerge as a result of interpersonal violence, more research is needed to confirm and expand on these findings.
The need for additional research
More research and funding for such research are needed to replicate, expand upon these studies, and address limitations. First, existing studies focus heavily on women with psychosis and people currently or recently hospitalized. Of all people with a mental illness, these groups make up only a fraction. Future research investigating mental illnesses of varying severities is needed. Also, studies of IPV often exclude non-white women completely or have sample sizes of men and non-binary people too small to analyze. Lastly, more research is needed to determine if trends changed since the late 1990s and early 2000s when much of the available research was published.
From research to supporting survivors
In addition to quantitative research about IPV against people with mental illness, more qualitative investigations into the lived experience of survivors with pre-existing mental illness can help us as a society develop better survivor-centered resources. Research is critical to understand the scope of the problem and how to create better programs. However, we must not lose sight of the individuality of different people’s IPV experiences. We can pick up on general patterns through surveys and use that data to implement programs and interventions to target those patterns. However, we must also recognize every survivor as an individual with their own needs.
If you or someone you know experiences mental illness and abuse, you are not alone. Our advocates are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call love is respect at 1-866-331-9474, text “love is” to 22522, or chat with an advocate at loveisrespect.org.
If you have a story you want to share, take our Mental Health and Substance Use Coercion Survey. In partnership with the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health (NCDVTMH) and StrongHearts, we are surveying the lived experiences of those impacted by relationship abuse and mental health or substance use. All information collected will be confidential and anonymous. We invite you to participate in our survey until June 26.