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The Psychological Effects
of
Domestic Violence

Domestic violence accounts for most nonorganic mental health disorders in women and children who are exposed to family and partner violence. This includes violence from verbal, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as stalking and neglect. Interpersonal relationship violence is related to mental health more than three times that of non-abused women and affects the women that sustain it as well as their children. Domestic violence impairs the mental health of the families that endure it for years to follow and perpetuates the cycle of violence for generations.

Although men experience domestic violence by female perpetrators, most studies on the history of domestic violence and mental health have been completed on women due to the epidemic numbers of violence against women by male perpetrators. Many factors such as frequency, intensity of violence and duration of abuse, as well as temperament of the victim can exacerbate the manifestation of mental health disorders such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety, dissociation, substance abuse and even Borderline Personality Disorder.

A) One of the most common mental health diagnoses for women and children who experience domestic violence is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD include intrusive thoughts or flashbacks, nightmares or sleep disturbances, emotional detachment, triggers that represent the trauma, and/or feelings of a reoccurrence of the event(s). Experiencing physical assault is significantly related to PTSD symptoms. This is not to say that all women and children who were exposed to physical violence will produce PTSD symptoms, however PTSD is a common mental health diagnosis stemming from perceived intolerable trauma and psychological instability.

Emotional abuse can also promote PTSD because the mere interpretation of fear or helplessness can lead to PTSD symptoms. When victims perceive a threat their cortisol levels leave them in a state of fight, flight or freeze which is the body’s survival mechanism; moreover, when the individual is in a constant state of hyperarousal the neurochemicals in the brain begin to destroy tissue. This constant flooding affects memory and learning due to shrinkage of the hippocampus and depresses the immune system.

This article courtesy of Siskiyou Domestic Violence & Crisis Center

Click on their logo for more information.

B) Many times when individuals experience symptoms of PTSD they utilize maladaptive coping skills to ease excessive guilt. Guilt is huge in the symptomology of PTSD and depression in battered women, as are high rates of depression and anxiety. Depressed victims of domestic violence have been known to maintain a sense of hopelessness and low self-esteem due to emotional abuse. As the batterer manipulates his partner by withholding affection to maintain the victim’s submissiveness (or learned helplessness incorporating intimidation), he promotes anxiety and passivity. Furthermore, he oftentimes applies restrictions such as social isolation to control her. For many battered women this will continuously chip away at self-efficacy, manifesting in depression and/or anxiety.

Because depression in battered women is higher than in those who are not battered, theories posit that depression is a reaction to the abuse, causing battered women to have different neuron and cognitive functioning that maintain the sense of hopelessness. Other risk factors that may exacerbate depression are exposure to childhood abuse, personality traits, severity and duration of violence, and a lack of social support or resources. Many times the threat of violence escalates after the woman leaves the relationship, allowing the depression to increase before it disperses.

A study performed in a women’s shelter in Hawaii specified that the biggest indicator of depression for battered women was negative self-reinforcement. Self-blame and loss were also major indicators of manifesting depression. The loss of self-esteem is a huge factor in depression in battered women. The humiliation of their emotional abuse and chronic criticism wreaks havoc on self-efficacy. Pairing this with threats of violence against their children and family pets can leave victims emotionally debilitated. Furthermore, those who have experienced sexual abuse maintain an even lower self-efficacy. Women who suffered childhood sexual abuse reported higher depressive symptoms, almost five times higher than those who had not been sexually abused. This emotional bankruptcy leads to suicidal ideation, self-mutilation and substance abuse.

C) Dissociating is another form of coping that victims implement when under such duress and can be looked at upon a continuum from normal to pathology. Dissociation happens when the individual disconnects from reality such as daydreaming, memory loss, disallowing integration of one’s thoughts and feelings to the most severe dissociative identity disorder, also referred to in the past as multiple personality disorder. Dissociation serves as a survival mechanism from trauma for the victim, and it has been linked to victims of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, neglect and witnessing violence. Dissociation allows the victim to travel through life in a fog to endure prolonged pain while allowing the mind to cope, but it also interferes with the victim’s quality of life.

D) Another study showed that depression led to substance abuse for up to four years after the victimized women left the relationship. Substance use and/or abuse have been a contributing sequel for victims of domestic violence as a coping mechanism for both physical and psychological pain. In addition, women who had been physically or sexually abused were six times more likely to have substance abuse than those who were not abused. Moreover, the majority of incarcerated females had experienced childhood or partner abuse with 80% of those admitting to substance use. Alcohol and other substances in moderation can reduce negative psychological affects, however many times it produces adverse consequences in both the victim and the batterer, continuing what is known as the cycle of violence in both victim and perpetrator.

E) Extreme stress such as childhood sexual and physical abuse has been linked to personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), especially in male children exposed to domestic violence. BPD is depicted by unstable interpersonal relationships, all or nothing thinking, manipulating and undermining others, an overwhelming fear of abandonment, lack of self-efficacy and lacking control over affect and impulsivity. Impulse aggression is one of the core dimensions of BPD. BPD mimics the cycle of violence in that it is cyclical in nature, with BPD people using intermittent undermining shifts in personality. This behavior is usually found in assaultive perpetrators who more often than not are survivors of domestic violent childhoods. Moreover, they suffer from adult attachment disorders and an inability to control their anger, blaming their victims as the source of their anger. Victims of partners with BPD tend to portray self-mutilation, substance abuse, suicidal ideation and dissociation.

This article courtesy of Siskiyou Domestic Violence & Crisis Center

Click on their logo for more information.

Violence and its impact can have long term effects on an individual’s mental health, especially cumulative violence in relationships. Furthermore, children who are exposed to family violence oftentimes grow up choosing partners who will abuse them or they expose themselves to experiences of violence more than those who are raised in families without violence. Abused women are susceptible to a lower quality of life stemming from their abuse as well as further exploitation and re-victimization in areas outside the home, including social settings, occupation and education. They are also at higher risk for poverty and poor mental and physical health.

Domestic violence is not a private matter. It is a crime that needs community involvement and exposure to promote healthy individuals, safe homes and harmonious communities.

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