One in 17 people in the United States live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.[i] Do you know more than 17 people? Someone in your circle of friends and family most likely has a mental illness.
Personality disorders afflict about 13% of people[ii]. That’s more than one in ten. It is not uncommon to say “so and so” must have a borderline or narcissistic personality in our effort to understand behaviors of people who repeatedly lie, bully, manipulate others or act impulsively.
This article cannot delve into the multiple factors that underlie either mental illnesses or personality disorders. Those are best left to highly educated medical practitioners and researchers. Yet there is one glaring factor that ordinary people can address without advanced degrees. Domestic violence.
There is no chicken or egg question here. Domestic violence precipitates extensive physical, emotional and psychological damage.
Typically we associate domestic violence as physical assault on someone close to the abuser. The victims can be spouses, unmarried partners, parents and children. We recognize that it often leads to serious physical injury, or even death. We have made progress on fighting it. Laws like the Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (TVPA) codify victims’ rights to protection and provide funds.
Despite the fact state and federal governments legislate for change the incidence of domestic violence is still staggering. On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner or other family member. That exceeds 12 million abused women and men over the course of a year in the United States alone.
Whether or not abusers cause physical harm to their victims’ bodies they cause infinite damage to their victims’ psyche. It is especially difficult for victims to recognize the psychological effect of abuse. They begin to think they are “crazy” and abusers are all too happy to encourage that belief.
“Domestic violence can cause an adverse ripple effect on the emotional and psychological state of a domestic violence survivor,” according to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, depression and anxiety are often ignited by domestic violence and/or other severe forms of abuse.”
This emotional impact is insidious. Domestic violence can lead to a chronic state of PTSD. Being abused by someone who should be trustworthy and loving leads many women to feel abandoned, betrayed and unlovable. Depression is by far the most common symptom of domestic violence, and it’s also one of the chronic effects of PTSD caused by abuse. The feeling of helplessness and hopelessness to which many victims fall prey profoundly undermines their mental and emotional well being.
Dr. Kelsey Hegarty, a professor at the University of Melbourne calls domestic violence the hidden epidemic associated with mental illness. Depression has long been recognized as one of the more common psychic injuries of battering.
Then there are the children. The trauma of domestic violence has severe and long-lasting psychological, emotional and developmental effects on them. “Families under stress produce children under stress. If a spouse is being abused and there are children in the home, the children are affected by the abuse.”[iii] Children grow up learning that it’s okay to hurt other people or to let other people hurt them. A third of all children who see their mothers get beaten develop emotional problems. Boys who see their fathers beat their mothers are ten times more likely to be abusive in their adult intimate relationships.[iv]
These negative effects happen even when children are not harmed themselves. Studies show that children who witness violence in the home and children who are abused may display many similar psychological effects.[v] These children are at greater risk for internalized behaviors such as anxiety and depression, and for externalized behaviors such as fighting, bullying, lying, or cheating. They also are more disobedient at home and at school, and are more likely to have social competence problems.
There are adequate laws in place criminalizing domestic violence. They create a system in which we can work to end it. But laws themselves don’t change the world. We have to change our culture. We have the knowledge to prevent domestic violence and its trickle down effect on families’ total mental and physical wellness. At the same time we can break the cycles of homelessness, poverty, poor school performance and childhood trauma.
Change has to happen on the ground. People must face their suspicions that a friend or family member is a victim and take action. Religious communities can use their relationships with congregates to encourage victims to come forward. We must invest in school programs that teach children what abuse is and how to avoid it. Even more importantly, we have to teach children they are right to “tell” on people who hurt them or make them feel something is wrong. Laws against abuse must be enforced against anyone who exercises it – whether they are celebrities, politicians, law enforcement personnel or the guy down the street stocking shelves or pushing a broom. Then we have to protect victims with more than a simple piece of paper that protection orders can be.
Our laws, programs and generous donors to the cause show that compassion for victims is there. All too often they add up to an approach that spends less on prevention and far more on taking care of the victims after they are hurt.
Ending domestic violence is the answer. The incidence of mental illness will certainly decline and so will the social ills that go with it.
[i] National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Statistics: Any Disorder Among Adults. Retrieved March 5, 2013, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1ANYDIS_ADULT.shtml. (retrieved from http://www.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf.)
[ii] Last full review/revision August 2012 by John G. Gunderson, MD; Lois Choi-Kain, MD. http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/mental_health_disorders/personality_disorders/personality_disorders.html
[v] Jaffe PG, Hurley DJ, Wolfe D. Children’s observations of violence: I. Critical issues in child development and intervention planning. Can J Psychiatry. 1990. 35:466–70.