People who burn down buildings, or set off bombs, or murder other people, may arguably have mental “problems,” and no doubt “need help,” but society does not view serious crimes as primarily “mental health” issues; it addresses them with prison terms, not with counseling groups or psychotherapy.
Domestic abuse and even violence however have long been viewed more ambivalently by western society. Male physical dominance of women has been a feature of patriarchy since ancient times, was effectively legal in earlier days in Britain (the “rule of thumb”) and the U.S., and is even now widely tolerated, covered-up and excused in popular culture, whatever the law may now say. Thus, when confronted in recent years by the growing reality that there are a great many men beating and assaulting their wives or girlfriends, society has been somewhat unsure of what official legal response to make, of who to turn to for expertise, of how to combat the problem. The over-taxed prison system did not seem equipped to take on a huge number of offending men (many of them white and affluent); police on the beat never liked to get involved; and judges felt uneasy at sentencing men to real penalties for “crimes” that so many men viewed as really no big crime at all. In recent years mental health professionals have increasingly been gaining ascendance in the competition for funding and leadership roles, to respond to domestic violence. Programs proclaimed to be “for batterers,” offering group therapy, “anger management” techniques, “time-out” training, personality diagnostics, etc. and staffed by credentialed therapists, have appeared in hundreds of communities across the country. Local judges are increasingly being persuaded to require men to attend these programs, as an alternative to jail. Despite the lack of any convincing empirical evidence that such programs have ever actually in fact reduced the prevalence of Domestic Violence, mental-health-based programs are now increasingly dominating the official domestic violence landscape. Characteristically, these programs have no contact with the local Battered Women’s programs, or with formerly battered women or their advocates.
While important conceptually, and important in how we speak and write about Domestic Violence, the recognition that this is fundamentally a crime and not a mental health issue will also have social, legal, career, and economic reverberations. One specific and important policy implication is described below.