Domestic violence. It can happen to anyone. It doesn’t discriminate. And the effects of an abusive relationship are far-reaching. Leaving an abusive relationship can be extremely difficult and dangerous for many women. With the right resources and supports in place, we are hoping to help as many women as possible. But we also know that the effects of domestic violence continue long after a woman has left an abusive relationship. And, in the case of a child witnessing or experiencing violence at home, these effects can be severely detrimental to his or her development and future relationships.
Numerous studies point to the strong link between mental health illness and domestic violence. People who have experienced domestic violence are at a much greater risk of developing depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse issues. There’s also proof that women who have been abused are three to five times more likely to feel suicidal, compared to women who have not. A study by Dutton et al. showed that 83% of women in treatment for depression had been exposed to severe physical violence or sexual abuse as a child or adult. Many professionals also feel that it’s rare for women who have experienced violence to not also experience some kind of mental health issue as a result of the abuse. The World Health Organization actually declared that violence against women is the leading cause of depression for women. These statistics are astounding and prove that we must be focusing strongly on supporting both women and children who have experienced abuse, continuing to follow up and support the survivors for as long as necessary.
Studies also show that women who have experienced violent relationships have significantly higher substance abuse rates and mental health problems, compared to those who haven’t experienced domestic violence. Unfortunately, many women with mental health issues or substance abuse problems are wrongly labelled and the underlying issue of violence or previous abuse is not addressed. Counselling or therapy, combined with strong support, is key, especially when it comes to helping these women re-enter the workforce and find affordable housing. Many anti-violence advocates have admitted to feeling ill-equipped to handle the corresponding mental health or substance abuse issues, which has left many women not receiving the help they greatly need. Combining these three sectors will undoubtedly prove to be paramount to helping women at need.
Domestic violence also greatly affects children, often resulting in long-lasting mental health issues. A Canadian survey showed that 70% of children who witnessed spousal violence either saw or heard assaults against their mothers, which is traumatizing for children. The reality too is that domestic violence is thought to be highly underreported, for a variety of reasons, including having the children taken away. Exposure to domestic violence or being abused themselves can affect children in such a wide range of ways, including physical complaints, emotional (such as depression, anxiety, guilt or PTSD), behavioural issues (i.e. aggression, suicidal behaviours or alcohol or illicit drug use) and more. Research has also shown that young people who have been exposed to domestic violence are more likely to experience traumatic stress symptoms. They also tend to be more likely to accept violence in their own future relationships, which is why it is crucial to break the cycle of violence. Helping women leave violent relationships will also help children who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence. It is paramount that we combine the support for both women and children, and that children are not left out of the support and counselling offered to victims of domestic violence.
While there is still much we can do to ensure we are properly supporting women and children who have experienced abusive relationships, we can start by working to bridge the gap between anti-violence advocates, mental health professionals, and substance abuse workers. This will create a more cohesive and helpful framework in which we can better address every issue and potential consequence of domestic violence. Knowing that these issues are so closely combined can better help us alleviate some potential traumatic effects that children also face, ideally helping them better adjust and avoid harmful consequences.