Violence of Persons With Severe Mental Illness Toward Their Family Caregivers

Phyllis L. Solomon, University of Pennsylvania
Richard J. Gelles, University of Pennsylvania
Mary M. Cavanaugh, University of Pennsylvania

From 10 to 40% of families of adults with severe mental illness (SMI) experience assaultive and/or threatening behaviors at the hands of their relative with a psychiatric disorder. Furthermore, 50-65% of persons with major psychiatric disorders who engage in interpersonal violence direct it toward family members, particularly mothers. Families continue to shoulder the primary responsibility of caring for relatives with a severe psychiatric disorder, and yet violence against family caregivers by their relative with SMI remains a neglected area of research in the domains of of family violence, mental health family caregiving, and mental illness and violence. There is minimal hint of this problem in the elder abuse research literature.

The purpose of this presentation is three-fold: 1) To examine the limited existing literature in family violence among the severely mentally ill; 2) To propose a conceptual framework for explaining this phenomenon; and 3) To discuss methodological issues for scientifically investigating this hidden problem. Domestic violence and mental illness is a neglected area of research due to the concerns of families with persons with severe mental illness, mental health advocates, and researchers regarding further stigmatizing an already vulnerable population. Yet, the impact of violence in these family units has important implications not only for these families, but also for the criminal justice system, homeless shelters, and the mental health system.

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Updated 05/20/2006