On January 23rd, Chad Wheeler, a moderately successful football player who until recently played for the Seattle Seahawks, was arrested after his girlfriend called the police to report a physical altercation with Wheeler. According to an NBC affiliate in Kent, Washington, Wheeler was charged on Monday with “first-degree domestic violence assault, domestic violence unlawful imprisonment, and resisting arrest,” and issued a protective order demanding that he stay away from his girlfriend. The Seahawks released him from his contract shortly after the arrest.
The details of the case are in many ways straightforward and undisputed. Wheeler doesn’t deny the attack; he reportedly told officers on the scene that he thought he’d killed his girlfriend and apologized during his arrest, saying, “I don’t beat women.” The girlfriend told officers she thought she was going to die during the altercation, ESPN reported. In statement read in court, Wheeler’s now ex-girlfriend described the attack: “He first sat on top of me, choked me, stuffed his fingers down my throat and covered my nose and mouth with his hands. I begged him to stop.” Soon she lost consciousness. Strangling is a particularly dangerous form of violence, as a 2003 report on intimate partner violence from the National Institute of Justice found attempted strangulation to be the third most common signifier that a woman would be killed.
But Wheeler’s history of mental illness complicates interpretations of the alleged assault. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016, according to ESPN, and both Wheeler and his now ex-girlfriend say they believe that the altercation took place during a manic episode, triggered by Wheeler stopping his medication. (As an offensive tackle, Wheeler’s job could be described as performing controlled intermittent acts of violence on command. His employers, the New York Giants and the Seahawks, were aware of Wheeler’s diagnosis, as full medical history is part of joining a team.)
Wheeler’s mental health has now added a much-contested dimension to the alleged abuse. The intersection between the mental health of abusers and their violence is a contentious area, where experts and mental healthcare providers are often conflicted on whether or not a particular diagnosis plays a significant enough role to translate into leniency. “Mental health issues don’t cause people to be abusive,” Kelly Starr, director of public affairs for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCAVD), told Jezebel. “Domestic violence isn’t about [one night]; it’s about a pattern of behavior.”
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Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence echoed a similar sentiment, “Society is too readily willing to hear out excuses about violence against women.”
Adjudicating cases that fall under a mental health diagnosis is a legal grey area, as WSCAVD pointed out in a robust 2010 report. While it is not always the case that mental illness and violence are strongly linked, particularly in cases of domestic and intimate partner violence, there are studies that have shown links between a lack of intervention by mental health providers and DV incidents that end in suicide or homicide. Healthcare providers often miss key moments where intervention might be possible. As the report explains, “failures in screening and assessing for domestic violence meant that mental health providers never identified the risk abusers posed to their families. It also meant that abusers never received referrals to appropriate interventions that might have helped them stop their violence.”
Still, Glenn emphasized that while things like substance abuse, mental health diagnoses, and addiction can be considered “risk factors,” most often abusers “make a conscious decision to harm people they claim to love. Even in [Wheeler’s] manic episode, there was still a choice whether or not to harm his girlfriend. There was a choice whether or not to take his medication.” Glenn also argues that the manic episode could have happened anywhere outside the home and it’s possible he would have made different choices if he were in public, where the violence could easily be seen.
When asked about whether or not Wheeler’s choice to stop his medication should play any role in the legal process, Starr’s answer was complicated. “It’s not useful when talking about domestic violence to try and obsess about one specific thing,” she said. “It doesn’t change what happened to this woman and it doesn’t change what’s happening to millions of people if we figure out what one thing went wrong on one night.” Glenn answered the same question with a question of her own, “What are we saying as a society when we begin to find excuses or justify this behavior?”
Every domestic violence case is different and obtaining a single answer does not solve the larger issue. Starr added that the focus on mental health diminishes the commonality of such violence, relegating it instead to isolated cases of people who are already outliers. “Why we can’t succeed in ending [domestic violence] is because we try to other it. If we can say this thing happened because of x, y, and z specifically, then it makes it easier to pretend this can’t be happening to people we know.”
But Wheeler’s diagnosis still looms large for those who would deflect his behavior. On the day he tweeted out an apology to his victim he also mentioned his newfound commitment to “get help.” The Seahawks tweeted in kind that they hope Wheeler “gets the help he needs.” Meanwhile, his ex-girlfriend is concerned about whether or not she will get the protection she needs, with Wheeler sitting in a room somewhere with an ankle monitor. In a statement read aloud during Wheeler’s arraignment, she critiqued the court’s decision, saying, “this current status places my safety at risk, and I do not believe that a protective order or a condition of release is sufficient to keep me safe.” Going back on his medication was not a condition of Wheeler’s release, and he was ordered to remain in King County, the same county where the alleged victim lives. Wheeler’s family has a home in Hawaii but his only residence in King County was one he shared with his girlfriend.
Chad Wheeler will stand trial in April. In the meantime he has been let go from his team and, depending on the outcome of the trial, may be dropped from the NFL entirely. Trying to figure out how justice could look like now, in Starr’s opinion, shows just how fully the system has already failed. “You can take him out of football, but what comes next? How does that help his victim who just wants to be safe and probably not have her relationship scrutinized by the public?” In Starr’s mind, the community failed the alleged victim long before she called the police when it failed to establish violence prevention programs for teens, community lodging and extraction programs, and law enforcement beyond policing.
Accountability needs to be more than just jail time absent of rehabilitation for the abuser—and the discarding of victims once a court case comes to an end.