Domestic violence is a serious issue that goes far beyond one person physically abusing another. When an abused person is finally able to escape their abuser, the scars of that trauma are much more than skin-deep. The stress and pain of domestic violence have far-reaching mental and emotional consequences that can last a lifetime if not addressed.
The research on domestic violence
Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London in England, the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal (IUSMM), and the University of Montreal found that survivors of domestic violence are at a far greater risk of mental health issues, most notably depression and psychotic symptoms. The ten-year study followed over 1,000 mothers with no previous indication of depression. Over the years, study participants were interviewed to ascertain whether or not they had suffered from any form of domestic violence and if they had subsequent mental health issues.
Even controlling for childhood trauma and other mitigating factors, researchers found that those women who experienced domestic violence (approximately 33% of study participants) were twice as likely to be depressed. They were also at increased risk of psychotic symptoms resembling schizophrenia. For the women who had suffered abuse in their childhood, this risk of psychotic symptoms doubled.
Louise Arseneault, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, believes that these numbers call for increased awareness from primary care doctors for screening and treatment of mental health issues due to domestic violence, noting:
“Health professionals need to be very aware of the possibility that women who experience mental health problems may also be the victims of domestic violence and vice versa. Given the prevalence of depression in these victims, we need to prevent these situations and take action. These acts of violence do more than leave physical damage; they leave psychological scars as well.”
For children who witness domestic violence, these scars follow them all the way to (and through) adulthood. A meta-analysis of 31 studies of children who were witness to abuse in their homes (but not themselves physical victims) found that:
- Children who witnessed violence in their homes were either more aggressive or much more withdrawn
- These same children were less able to read and understand the emotions of others and demonstrated less skill in social situations
- Adults who witnessed violence as children had a higher chance of developing depression, post-traumatic stress-type symptoms, and low self-esteem
Domestic violence and chronic pain
These symptoms of mental health disorders are not to diminish the real, physical consequences of domestic abuse. There have been many studies done on the relationship between domestic violence and chronic pain, with nearly every one of them clearly connecting the two. Not only does domestic abuse cause immediate physical pain, but there is also evidence that abuse causes neurological changes that can contribute to the development of chronic pain.
In addition, domestic violence can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms that can intensify pre-existing chronic pain. Understanding this is vital to appropriate treatment of survivors of domestic violence, as both mental and physical symptoms must be addressed.
Escaping domestic violence
For victims of domestic abuse, there is help and hope to escape a violent situation. Here are some ways to protect yourself, your children, and your pets as you create your plan.
- If you feel your life is in danger, call 911. Move yourself and your children to a locked part of your home, or leave if that is possible. If your children are not the target of abuse, instruct them to flee and do not bring your abuser towards them.
- Knowing your abuser’s red flags can help you anticipate abuse and either remove yourself from the situation or mitigate your abuser’s response. Even in doing this, it is important to remember that you are not responsible for your abuser’s actions. There is nothing you can do that makes you responsible for or deserving of their abuse. If you can see the signs that an attack may be coming, you can put a safety plan in action.
- Memorize emergency numbers and contacts instead of relying on your phone’s contact list. If you need to flee, you may not have your phone with you. Keep your car’s gas tank full and back into your parking space. Where appropriate, leave the driver’s side door unlocked. Hide a car key in an easily accessible place so you won’t need to look for keys.
- Keep an emergency bag at a trusted friend’s house. This bag should include cash, clothes, medications, and anything else you might need if you need to leave in a hurry. For children, a special comforting toy or game can be included in this bag as well.
Some victims of abuse may be hesitant to leave because it means leaving a pet behind. The vast majority of emergency shelters do not have facilities for pets, and victims worry what will happen if they leave. Organizations such as RedRover are working with shelters and generous donors to help victims of abuse find places for their animals while they care for themselves. Over 71% of abuse victims report that their abuser has targeted their pets. This concern can cause abuse victims to stay.
Domestic violence causes lasting scars to victims, witnesses, and the community. Victims often feel alone and helpless, but there are resources that can help. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, reach out to identify the resources needed to escape. While the majority of abuse victims are women and children, men are also targets of abuse. There are domestic violence resources targeted specifically for men to leave an abusive situation safely and permanently.
Don’t wait until it is too late to leave. Find help.