If you’ve been arrested or charged with domestic battery, criminal threats, or other forms of domestic violence, the one thing that could make matters worse is not understanding how or why it happened. How, exactly, did you get here? Perhaps you have some anger issues, but you never expected an argument with your partner to escalate to an arrest. Or maybe you’ve been struggling with your mental health but never formally diagnosed with any condition. This begs the question: can an undiagnosed mental illness trigger domestic violence?
In short, yes, it’s possible for an undiagnosed mental illness to contribute to violent behavior in a relationship. Not all cases of domestic violence are as straightforward as they seem, and in some instances, undiagnosed mental illnesses play a significant role in provoking aggressive or violent behavior. While there is no direct causation between mental illness and domestic violence, certain conditions can increase the risk of aggressive or violent behavior. This is especially true for individuals with a history of anger management issues or difficulty controlling their emotions. Let’s explore this issue in a little more detail to provide more perspective.
The Prevalence of Undiagnosed Mental Illness
By the numbers, it’s estimated that one in five adults experience a diagnosible mental illness at some level–however, those numbers may be higher than estimated. In the aftermath of the pandemic, surveys indicated that up to 50 percent of the population reported mental health issues, and almost everyone knew someone in their family who was struggling. The World Health Organization estimates that as many as two-thirds of mental illnesses go untreated or undiagnosed.
The reasons for so many possible undiagnosed mental illnesses are manifold, including societal stigma, lack of access to healthcare, and fear of being labeled ‘mentally ill.’ However, in some cases (but certainly not all), untreated mental illness can lead to severe consequences, including violent behavior toward oneself and others.
Types of Mental Illness That Could Trigger Violence
We should start by stating that research shows the connection between mental illness and domestic violence is rarer than one might think. In fact, most mentally ill people are not violent, and the percentage of domestic violence incidents linked to mental illness is relatively low. However, mental illness may be an underlying condition that, when compounded by other situations like substance abuse or anger issues, could increase the risk of violence in the family.
Having made this clear, some diagnosable mental illnesses that have the potential to trigger violence include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Individuals who have PTSD have often experienced a traumatic event that triggers intense flashbacks, nightmares, or severe anxiety. These symptoms can lead to irritability, difficulty concentrating, and, in some cases, aggressive outbursts. (PTSD is perhaps one of the most common underlying causes of violence.)
- Bipolar Disorder: This condition is characterized by severe mood swings, from extreme happiness (mania) to severe depression. During manic episodes, individuals may become irritable and have a heightened reaction to perceived slights, which can lead to aggressive behavior.
- Schizophrenia: This complex mental disorder often involves hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking, sometimes resulting in violent or aggressive behavior if the individual feels threatened or misunderstood.
- Major Depressive Disorder: While depression is commonly associated with sadness and lethargy, some individuals may experience symptoms of irritability and anger. In rare but severe cases, this can lead to aggressive behavior.
- Borderline Personality Disorder: This disorder is characterized by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships. People with this disorder may exhibit impulsive, reckless behavior and react strongly to perceived criticism or rejection, potentially leading to aggression or violence.
- Antisocial Personality Disorder: Individuals with this disorder tend to disregard or violate the rights of others. They may struggle with empathy, leading to a higher likelihood of aggressive or violent behavior.
- Intermittent Explosive Disorder: This disorder involves repeated, sudden episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts, often over minor provocations.
What to Do if You Believe You May Have an Undiagnosed Mental Illness
Barring obvious triggers that you know about, if you are concerned that you may have an unknown mental illness (especially one that may be connected to a recent incident of domestic violence), the good news is there are steps you can take to find out–and other steps you can take to manage symptoms if you are diagnosed.
- Recognize the Signs: Some common symptoms of mental illness can include persistent feelings of sadness or anxiety, extreme mood changes, withdrawal from friends and activities, significant tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and drastic changes in eating habits. If you experience any of these symptoms, they’re not conclusively a sign of mental illness but worth exploring.
- Get Evaluated. The best way to know if a mental illness triggers violent behavior is to get it diagnosed. A psychiatrist or psychologist can provide a thorough assessment, accurate diagnosis, and a tailored treatment plan. This might include therapy, medication, lifestyle modifications, or a combination.
- Stay Informed: Educate yourself about mental health conditions. Understanding your condition can make it less intimidating and help you communicate effectively with your healthcare providers.
- Follow Through with Treatment: If you’re ultimately diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s crucial to follow the recommended treatment plan, attend follow-up appointments, and communicate openly with your healthcare provider about how you’re feeling. Adjustments to the treatment plan can be made as necessary. This is especially critical if your mental health professional believes your condition may be a trigger for violent behavior.
Most importantly, if an undiagnosed mental illness is an underlying cause of your domestic violence incident, the key to breaking this cycle lies in seeking professional help. That means breaking free of the stigma so many associate with mental illness. Remember, more people suffer from these conditions than you realize, and there is no shame in getting help when you are ill. Mental health professionals can provide a comprehensive evaluation and devise a treatment plan tailored to your needs. And while you can’t necessarily claim mental illness as a defense to get domestic violence charges dropped, an official diagnosis can help guide your sentencing toward rehabilitative strategies to help you avoid a recurrence. If you’re facing domestic violence charges–whatever the cause–an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorney can help you successfully navigate what’s ahead. Call our offices to schedule a consultation.