The presumed link between mental illness and violence is a hot-button topic these days—and to the chagrin of many mental health professionals, this connection seems to add to the stigma of those who suffer from various types of mental illness. There are likely two reasons why this connection has been made, at least in the arena of public belief. First, we’ve seen numerous high-profile violent crimes in recent years (most notably related to gun violence and/or mass shootings) that have been attributed with people who have been diagnosed with severe mental illness. And second, many acts of violence are so senseless that we naturally begin looking for a reason why they might have occurred. (In other words, when a violent act appears to be insane, we generally blame it on insanity.)
This idea also raises an important question among couples and families: Can mental illness be a contributing factor or trigger mechanism for domestic violence? Put another way, can we blame an act of domestic violence on mental illness? For that matter, if so, could mental illness be used as a successful defense against domestic violence charges? Let’s explore this question in a bit more detail, looking at the latest science and research while unpacking some of the myths surrounding this question.
The Short Answer Is Yes—But It’s Far More Seldom than You Think
There have been more than a few studies trying to explore the link between mental illness and violence in general. The Treatment Advocacy Center has compiled a helpful summary of many of these studies, and their findings show that while some people with serious mental illness do commit acts of violence, the percentage of violent crimes attributed to mental illness is remarkably small. Among the most important points to mention from these studies:
- The vast majority of mentally ill people are not given to violence. This is an important point because of the stigma and fear so often associated with mental illness. In fact, mentally ill people are statistically more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.
- Most violent crimes are committed by people who are not mentally ill. We must qualify this statement because common ailments like anxiety and depression are considered forms of mental illness, and many Americans suffer from these types of issues. Looking at the summaries of the studies, we must assume they are referring to more significant forms of mental illness—and we can also safely assume that milder mental illnesses like anxiety and depression generally don’t lead to violence.
- The mental illnesses most often associated with violence are schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These are the illnesses most often studied and which yield the most consistent results—but even then, the likelihood of violence is described as an elevated risk, not a guarantee.
Bear in mind that these summarized studies are looking at all forms of violent acts, not just domestic violence. When you consider that domestic violence is only a fraction of the violent crimes committed, you must also consider that the percentages go down, as well. Thus, the biggest takeaway is that while it’s possible for domestic violence to be triggered by mental illness, the odds of it happening are much smaller than most people think.
Other Contributing Factors Besides Mental Illness
Now, let’s contextualize this information. If it seems to you that the actual numbers of mentally ill people who commit domestic violence must be higher than the studies suggest, you’re partially right—because the part we haven’t looked at yet is that for most acts of violence associated with mental illness, there are other contributing factors. In other words, mental illness often coincides with domestic violence without actually being the sole cause of it. Let’s look at two of the most common contributing factors:
- Substance abuse. A significant number of mentally ill people who have become violent were also abusing alcohol and/or drugs. Substance abuse in itself factors into a large number of domestic violence cases.
- Lack of treatment. The vast majority of violent acts attributed to mental illness occur among people who are not receiving treated. Statistically speaking, when a mentally ill person is treated for their illness, the risk of violence goes down considerably.
Can My Mental Illness Be Used as a Defense or Explanation of Domestic Violence?
Families struggling with domestic violence often tend to cite known mental health conditions as an explanation for a partner’s tendency to become violent. Victims of domestic violence often try to defend their violent partners in this way, and someone charged with domestic violence might even be tempted to use their diagnosed mental illness as an excuse or defense.
However, taking the science into account, along with basic logic, most of the time this explanation is not viable. As the National Domestic Violence Hotline points out, most perpetrators of domestic violence single out their partners for violence—and they quite often hide this “ugly side” of their personality from acquaintances. If mental illness is truly making the person violent, that tendency will usually occur in all their relationships, not just their spouse or partner. In most cases, the only legal defense that might legitimize this argument is to plead “not guilty by reason of insanity,” which usually results in the defendant being institutionalized rather than set free. The only reason to consider this path is if your mental illness truly makes you a danger to others, not just to your significant other.
All that said, if you have recently been arrested for domestic violence, we can provide compassionate counsel and representation to help you get through it, regardless of the cause. Give us a call today for a free case evaluation.