Mental Health & IPV

by Dorislee Gilbert, Executive Director

May is National Mental Health Month, and as you’ve learned more about mental health, you may be wondering about the intersection of mental health or mental illness and intimate partner violence (IPV). It is not uncommon for people to assume that batterers must be mentally ill. However, the majority of batterers are not mentally ill. Even when they are, their mental illness does not cause them to be abusive, though it may increase the severity of the abuse or make it more difficult for batterers to change.  According to Lundy Bancroft, national expert on the treatment of batterers and author of Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, mental illness can be a lie that perpetrators of abuse tell to get away with their abuse. He writes: “Many abusers who are not mentally ill want women to think that they are, in order to avoid responsibility for their attitudes and behavior.” When we assume that people who abuse their intimate partners must be mentally ill, we fuel the acceptability of this excuse when offered by batterers.

Just as we sometimes make assumptions about the mental health of batterers, we also can be quick to make assumptions about the mental health of those who are victimized. We assume that because they don’t leave they must be mentally ill and somehow like what is happening to them. Or we assume—often because the batterer perpetuates this image—that the victim is mentally ill and the related unpredictable, inconsistent, or even violent behavior caused by her mental illness causes her to lie about violence or causes his violence. It is true that many victims of IPV do have adverse mental health outcomes. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 20% of persons victimized by IPV report new onset of a psychiatric disorder such as major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, or substance use disorder. However, these disorders do not cause IPV; rather, they often result from it. The trauma experienced by survivors of IPV can leave them deeply scarred, with both physical and psychological symptoms.

When we assume that mental illness causes victimization, we do a disservice to women everywhere. We tacitly approve or at least excuse batterers who prey on those with pre-existing mental illnesses. We increase the chances that methods of abuse like gaslighting and assuring the victim that no one will believe her are effective. We close the door of escape from abuse for women who suffer from mental illness.

During this National Mental Health Month, it is important to recognize that batterers and their victims can have mental health issues, illnesses, or conditions, but that none of those cause, excuse, or explain IPV. IPV is an issue separate and apart from mental illness, though there can be overlap. By acknowledging this, we affirm the value of safe relationships, encourage appropriate mental health treatment, and accept that mental illness does not prevent persons from being involved in healthy relationships.