Mental illness is common. Many people suffer from mental ill health. Violence is a major cause of mental illness. Interpersonal violence and mental illness can happen at the same time. There are people with a mental illness who are causing harm; there are people with a mental illness who are being harmed; there are people with a mental illness who are violence free, healthy and supportive friends, whānau and partners.
Some mental illness can increase the likelihood of violent behaviour, but that isn’t usually the problem in interpersonal violence. Mental illness does not cause controlling, abusive relationships. Some mental illness can increase the risk of abusive patterns, but violence that is caused by mental illness will affect all areas of a person’s life, all relationships. If someone is only hurting certain people—like their partner, children, their employees, women who are drunk—then the problem isn’t mental illness. They are choosing when to be violent.
- Does the person causing harm yell at everyone (their boss, co-workers, friends, team-mates, whānau), or only some people (their partner, their employees, children)?
- Does the person causing harm try to control everyone’s relationships, where they go and what they do, or only some people’s?
- Does the person causing harm hit everyone, or only some people?
- Does the person causing harm pressure everyone to do things they don’t want, or only some people?
- Does the person causing harm insult and disrespect everyone, or only some people?
- Does the person causing harm threaten everyone who disagrees with them, or only some people?
- Does the person causing harm hurt people no matter who is watching, or only in private?
If the person causing harm is choosing who they hurt and when they hurt them, then they are not out of control. They may have a mental illness, but that isn’t the problem, and it isn’t an excuse for abuse. Abuse is a choice they are making in order to maintain power and control over someone else.
Supporting people to better mental health may help them choose to end violence, but it is important to remember that abusive behaviour and mental illness are two different things.
Mental illness can make people more vulnerable to abuse, and can make it harder to get help. People with a mental illness may be more vulnerable to violence. You may be targeted by people who are violent. You may find it difficult to ask for support, and you may need support that people in your community don’t think they can provide. You may feel shame, you may change your mind—asking for and rejecting support. You may be in denial about what is happening. This is also true of anyone who is being hurt.
If you are supporting the person harmed it is important to be patient, compassionate and consistent.
Loveisrespect.org has tools and information about relationship violence and mental illness and depression.
The Resources section has a list of agencies that may have support.
The Ministry of Health has a list of places for support and a 24/7 mental health ‘need to talk’ number (1737) for talking or texting to a counsellor about any mental health or addiction issues.
Substance use is common. Many people use substances including legal and illegal drugs and alcohol.
Substance use can increase the likelihood of violent behaviour, or can be used to excuse violence. Some people blame drugs and alcohol for the harm they have caused, not taking responsibility for what they did when they were out of it. Some people use drugs and alcohol as an excuse knowing that they will hurt someone. When people who cause harm stop using drugs and alcohol, they are often still violent.
Drugs and alcohol do not cause violence, but they can increase levels of violence. They can make it hard to support people or to be part of a process of accountability. This doesn’t mean that community-based interventions to violence won’t work.
Drug and alcohol use can mean that people have fewer strong relationships, making it harder to convince them to choose to end violence. It can make it harder to see the consequences of their behaviour. It can make it harder for changes to stick.
What can you do about it?
- If you are supporting a person who is being harmed who also has a mental illness or substance abuse issue, you should learn about those issues. Try to work in a group, keeping track of what is going on and supporting each other. Organisations, groups and other resources that help with mental illness or substance abuse may help, and may work with the values and approach on this website. Groups and resources that talk about ‘harm reduction’ may be the most helpful.
- If you are supporting a person doing harm who also has a mental illness or substance abuse issue, you should learn about those issues, and how they affect violence and ability to take responsibility. Groups that talk about ‘harm reduction’ may be most helpful. Love is respect has information and resources that might help.
- When someone is causing harm and also has a mental illness or substance abuse problem, accountability can include self-care and support to get help for violence and for mental illness or substance abuse.