The Intersection of Mental Health and Abuse

Woman covering her face with the word "Help" written on the palm of her hand

In mid-January, it was reported that Chad Wheeler, a six-feet-seven and 310-pound NFL player, physically attacked his five-foot-nine and 145-pound girlfriend causing her serious injuries. Doctors concluded that the victim's lesions, bruises, bleeding, and swollen face and neck were consistent with being choked. She also presented a dislocated elbow and a broken arm. Photos of Wheeler’s girlfriend after the attack flooded social media provoking mixed reactions of condemnation and support. Some people reacted with an uproar and expressing support for the survivor of such a vicious attack. Others declared their sadness for the incident encouraging Wheeler “to get the help he needs.”

After his release, Wheeler Tweeted: “Events happened over the weekend that transpired from a manic episode. I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering that I have caused to Alleah and her family.” Alleah told the police that Wheeler had bipolar disorder and that he hadn’t been taking his medication.

It’s difficult to look at those horrifying photos and the diversity of comments circulating online without rethinking our social sensitivity. For instance, Wheeler’s online apology seemed to blame a manic episode, and many people responded expressing understanding and wishing him and Alleah a complete recovery. Prosecutors also seemed to sympathize with Wheeler’s mental health condition. He was charged only with a single count of domestic violence assault, domestic violence unlawful imprisonment, and resisting arrest. No charge for attempted murder even though prosecutors said in court documents that he “strangled, suffocated and beat the victim into unconsciousness – twice – both times leaving her for dead as blood poured out from her nose and mouth, and into her stomach and lungs.” In addition, when Alleah called 911, she told the operator that “she was being killed.” Would that have been the case if Wheeler were Black or Brown and Alleah was Caucasian?

What Research has Found

It seems to be a common assumption that substances and mental illness cause abuse or explain it. Research has found that although most people with mental illness are not violent, there’s a positive correlation between schizophrenia spectrum disorders and bipolar disorder with aggression and violent crimes. The study “Is bipolar disorder specifically associated with aggression?” concluded that individuals with bipolar disorder show higher rates of anger and aggression during acute manic episodes than the rest of the population. Another study, “Violence in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” found that the risk of violent behavior is more significant in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia than in the rest of the population – the risk is statistically higher for bipolar disorder during the manic phase. The study also found that comorbid substance abuse disorder and personality disorders significantly contributed to the increased risk of violence, especially in people with bipolar disorder. Abuse is a choice, however.

Abuse is a means to maintain power and control over another person(s).

Wheeler became violent only after Alleah refused to bow to him as he demanded it. Was he mentally impaired at that moment, or was it just his tendency to overpower her aggravated by a manic episode? A sense of grandiosity is typical of a manic episode, but when the police stormed the place, Wheeler was found apologizing to his beaten down girlfriend. He was conscious enough of the consequence of his actions. Abuse is a choice.

The research mentioned and many other studies have found that violent behavior in people with mental health issues, especially bipolar disorder, increases significantly with substance abuse and the intersectionality with personality disorders. To this day, no study has found a causational link between mental health problems and the choice to abuse another person(s). Abuse is a choice.

Healthy Relationships and Mental Health

Most people with mental health issues can live fulfilling lives enjoying healthy relationships as they responsibly adhere to their medical and psychological treatments. Being responsible and accountable to oneself and others is a critical part of a healthy relationship.

Building a healthy relationship with someone always begins with having a healthy relationship with oneself.

Taking responsibility for one’s physical and psychological challenges and their possible ensuing attitudes and behaviors is a critical first step for a healthy relationship with others. Most people with mental health issues have found that the key to loving, nurturing, and supporting relationships is practicing honest accountability to themselves and those they trust.

Accountability can help to prevent or manage well manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder, for example. Getting help from trusting relationships to be sure that one is doing the necessary to stay functionally and relationally healthy is the cornerstone of any plan. People’s support can have a positive effect when one wants to:

  • Set reasonable goals for mental health

  • Put those goals to work by establishing a structure and developing a routine

  • Adhere to medical and psychological treatments

  • Keep cultivating positive relationships

  • Be aware of emotional triggers

  • Track changes in mood every day

  • Avoid alcohol and other addictive substances

  • Reduce stress

  • Eat and sleep well

Keeping oneself open and vulnerable despite any emotional difficulties due to mental health issues builds respect, trust, and support, which is the foundation of healthy relationships.