It is Mental Health Awareness week and this year, the focus is on anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness. It might cause someone to sweat, feel restless and tense and have a rapid heartbeat. It is a normal emotion in us all and for many, it is short-lived.
For people with anxiety disorders, the fear is not temporary; not short lived and can feel overwhelming and out of control. That is when it becomes a mental health problem.
Mental health and domestic abuse are two separate entities. One does not make the other happen. It is unsurprising however that many make what seems like a logical link between the cause of domestic abuse and mental health. That, for example, depression, anxiety, narcissistic behaviour, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); antisocial and borderline personalities to name but a few,, cause domestic abuse. Although serious conditions, they do not. Some may increase the risk as they would in other areas of life, but are separate.
Mental health can affect many different aspects of a perpetrator’s life. How they engage with their inner circle of friends and family, how they perform at work or outside of the family home in social or formal settings. Whereas domestic abuse in contrast, impacts primarily on personal and intimate relationships where only those closest to the perpetrator see the real person.
Since abusive behaviours happen mostly in an intimate relationship, it’s common that an abusive partner will not show their true negative or harmful selves with friends, co-workers or family members. A perpetrator can be a ‘great pretender’ on the outside, , switching on their charm and convincing others that they are someone completely different to the person they really are. When the mask comes off, often behind closed doors, their true selves are revealed and the true perpetrator inside comes out. No more need for the pretence because no-one can see, hear or probably believe that they are this person.
It’s hard too for the victim. If everyone on the outside only sees the great pretender, it’s no wonder victims can and do feel that no-one would ever believe there was another side to the perpetrator. Their word against what is essentially a make believe person – unlikely. It can therefore often feel incredibly isolating.
We’ve heard it time and time again – there’s no excuse for abuse. And yet, from a perpetrator’s stance, excusing their behaviour on the grounds of mental health, happens. *Debbie, a victim, shares her thoughts on anxiety when it was used as an excuse for the abuse she suffered from her husband:
‘When he was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, it was if he had his own ‘get out clause’. The abuse I’d suffered for years now and long before the diagnosis, had a label. In his eyes, he could trade off all the damage he’d done with a legitimate reason – mental health, his new excuse. Not’ sorry, I’m tired’, not’ sorry, you just don’t listen’. No. Now it was ‘It’s not my fault, it’s part of my condition. There in black and white. A-N-X-I-E-T-Y! ’.
‘No wonder I’m anxious – I have to think about everything. You don’t do anything’. I do though. Our children are fed, clothed, ready for school or whatever after school thing there is. I do all the shopping, cleaning and I pay all the bills, manage all the direct debits. I work part-time and I try so hard. He goes to work, comes back and either goes straight out with his mates or sits and does pretty much nothing. But he’s anxious and depressed and he’s been diagnosed as that so I’m expected to accept it and all of the consequences of his condition. I won’t accept it and there’s a reason why.
You can’t use mental health as an excuse because we both know that he was like this well before his mental health problems started. He wasn’t anxious or depressed when I met him. Not for the first few years of our married life and yet he still abused me and the worst part, I don’t think anyone would believe me if they knew what really goes on. He’s like a Jekyll and Hyde character. One person on the outside with his mates, another when he’s with me. I mean it, who are people going to believe?
When he got diagnosed it’s as if a magic light switch went off in his head and all of a sudden he had something to blame for his actions. It wasn’t him, it was his illness. He didn’t have that in the beginning of our relationship and yet he was just the same – lashing out. I can only speak from my experience but I find it frustrating when mental health becomes a convenient label to excuse the inexcusable. Not in my experience. Never. ’.
Abuse and mental illness can overlap. There are cases of individuals who have mental illness and are also perpetrators of abuse. There are also many who have a mental illness and are not abusive.
If your partner has a mental illness and is abusive towards you, it is not one joined issue, rather two separate issues which need addressing separately. At the end of this article, there are organisations which can help with both needs.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the following questions may help clarify whether your partner is being abusive whilst having a mental illness:
- Does my partner yell or scream at others (friends, co-workers, 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.
Know where to get help, if you want and need it. See below for some places to go to if you need support.
Domestic Abuse help:
Help with anxiety
If you or someone else is in danger, call 999 or go to A&E now
If you need help urgently for your mental health, but it’s not an emergency, get help from NHS 111 online or call 111
NHS urgent mental health helplines are for people of all ages in England.
You can call for:
24-hour advice and support for you, your child, your parent or someone you care for help speaking to a mental health professional
an assessment to find the right care for you
You will need to answer a few questions on their website which can be found here.
Mind in Bradford:
Helpline telephone number – 08001 884 884
Office telephone number – 01274 730 815