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Mental Health and Domestic Violence

When an individual experiences domestic violence, a host of mental issues can arise both during periods of abuse and after leaving a violent relationship. For many experiencing abuse, they mask the abuse by pretending it has not occurred and put on a brave face for the world. “Over the years, most of the clients I have worked with say that mental abuse is the most difficult to overcome. Bruises will heal, but being told daily, weekly, or monthly that you aren’t good enough, not worthy of love, and all of the terrible things abusers say; those are the wounds that stay with someone,” said Jennie Reister, Outreach Services Director at The Julian Center.

Similarly, those in abusive relationships often experience mental health issues which are suppressed or ignored because of threats made by the abuser. For years, advocates have anecdotally reported that clients experience symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or depression as a result of the trauma associated with abuse, which is then used as a tool of control.

One of the questions asked as part of the Mental Health Coercion Survey (2016) follows:

“Has your partner or ex-partner ever threatened to report to authorities that you are ‘crazy’ to keep you from getting something you want or need (e.g., custody of children, medication, protective order)?” Slightly over half of the survivors who responded to this question (50.2% or 1,197 survivors) said, ‘Yes.’ This figure is particularly astonishing given that survey participants were not prescreened for a mental health history (White-Domain & Phillips, 2016).

The threat of losing children or presenting a weakened case in the criminal justice system are just a few of the barriers associated with seeking mental health services by those who experience domestic violence. For many, these are powerful motivators for staying in abusive relationships and compound untreated mental health issues.

Those in violent relationships feel the effects of abuse and trauma for years to come. It is not uncommon for survivors of violence to experience anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and dissociation (Barnett, 2005). For many, leaving an abusive relationship is the first step to ending the violence, but healing from these experiences is a journey. Survivors often seek the assistance of mental health counselors, therapists, and other professionals to process trauma. Because of this critical need, it is important that mental health providers help address the effects of abuse in conjunction with other issues clients are working through. It becomes critical for these professionals to screen for domestic violence and be prepared to assist any needs outside of therapy which may be present.

Similarly, service providers, law enforcement, and those who serve survivors of violence should understand the effects of trauma and those who have experienced it. While many agencies have moved to a trauma informed care model, there is still much to understand about the effects of trauma on individuals. Being sensitive and prepared to serve clients in a way that shows dignity and respect to their trauma is crucial to their long-term mental health.

As DVN leads a community conversation on the intersection between domestic violence and mental health issues, the following topics will be explored:

  • Barriers to seeking mental health services
  • Trauma Informed Care
  • Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, and Dissociation
  • People who batter and abuse and mental health
  • Best practices in screening for domestic violence for mental health service providers