Multiple factors contribute to domestic violence against mentally ill mothers

May 7, 2007

ANN ARBOR—Women with psychiatric disorders are more likely to be victims of domestic abuse if they are young and misuse alcohol and drugs, according to a new University of Michigan study.

And, contrary to the findings in other studies, race, education and marital status were not associated with the risk of intimate partner violence, said the study’s lead author Melnee D. McPherson, research investigator at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the School of Social Work.

The U-M study investigated the demographic and clinical correlates of intimate partner violence among a sample of 324 mothers with severe mental illnesses.

The study’s participants from 12 community agencies and psychiatric units in Michigan were asked about their views of motherhood in three interview sessions, each about 20 months apart, over six years. Each mother had at least one child between the ages of four and 16 for whom they had child care responsibilities.

At the follow-up interview with the mothers, they were asked if someone they were romantically involved with ever physically abused (slap, choke, hit with fist or object, sexual assault) them within the past 12 months. They were also asked to describe situations involving drugs and alcohol use, such as missing work or neglecting family obligations.

About 62 mothers, or 19 percent, reported domestic abuse. The study found that age was the only sociodemographic variable that was significantly associated with the intimate partner violence.

“Younger women were more likely than older women to report experiencing violence by an intimate partner,” she said. This finding isn’t surprising because younger women are more likely to be materially dependent on their abusive partners, particularly when they have young children to raise, McPherson said.

The severity of mental illness, which is based on factors such as the number of hospitalizations, and elevated levels of substance use correlated with subsequent experience of partner violence. Mothers who are diagnosed as having a mental illness and substance use disorder are more likely to be in an abusive relationship than mentally ill mothers who don’t abuse substances.

The study’s was co-authored by Jorge Delva, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, and James Cranford, a research assistant professor at the U-M Substance Abuse Research Center.

The findings appear in the current issue of Psychiatric Services.



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