Domestic Violence Damages Victims’ Mental Health

Domestic violence, sometimes called intimate partner violence, is a public health problem: Nearly one in four women has been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner, and one in nine men has experienced the same. 

The short-term physical effects of domestic violence can be easy to see—bumps, bruises, and other visible injuries. Harder to recognize and treat are the long-term negative effects domestic violence brings to a victim’s mental health.

In fact, more than 50 percent of women with a mental illness have previously experienced some sort of trauma such as physical or sexual abuse. The long-term mental health effects of violence against women can include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can result from experiencing a shocking, scary, dangerous, or traumatic event such as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Symptoms can include hostility, social and emotional isolation, flashbacks, anxiety,  insomnia, and self-destructive behavior
  • Depression. This is a serious illness marked by a persistent feeling of sadness or loss of interest that can lead to multiple behaviors and physical symptoms, including changes in sleep, appetite, energy level, concentration, and daily behavior, as well as thoughts of suicide
  • Anxiety. This can be general anxiety about everything and everyday situations, or it can be a sudden attack of intense fear. It can grow worse over time and interfere with daily life

Domestic violence victims also may experience low self-esteem, shut people out of their lives, not want to participate in activities they once enjoyed, and not be able to trust others.

Unfortunately, women who experience violence often turn to self-destructive coping mechanisms such as drugs, alcohol, smoking, and overeating. While these actions may seem to soothe the pain in the moment, they all work to worsen mental and physical health in the long run. 

Mental health services

Although a victim’s physical injuries can be repaired with medical treatment, the road to mental health recovery can be longer and more difficult. It’s just as crucial, however, to consult a mental health professional as it is to tend to physical injuries. 

A family doctor can provide the name of a counselor or therapist who can work with victims to rebuild self-esteem, develop coping skills, and explore other options for mental and emotional healing. An online databank of mental health services is another avenue for finding treatment, and a section of the U.S. Office on Women’s Health website is dedicated to finding mental health services.

Help is available

Addressing physical and mental health is just one part of a complicated puzzle for domestic violence victims. Leaving an abusive relationship can be a difficult and dangerous time, but taking action is the only way to break the cycle.

If you or a loved one is a domestic violence victim or in danger of becoming one, Mayo Clinic advises to start the healing by telling someone—a friend or family member, a health care provider, or other close contact—about the abuse. You also can call a national domestic violence hotline, listed below.

The U.S. Office on Women’s Health offers information on how to leave an abusive relationship. In Pennsylvania, domestic violence help centers are located across the state. A nationwide list of advocates and shelters can be found here.

Hotline services

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Reach out through email or live chat on the hotline’s contact page.

National Sexual Assault Hotline: (800) 656-HOPE (4673). Live online help also is available.

National Dating Abuse Helpline: 866-331-9474. A 24-hour, live online chat is available. You also can text “loveis” to 22522.

Protect your communications

Mayo Clinic notes that it’s important to maintain your privacy when seeking help to prevent your abuser from monitoring your conversations and location. Following these tips may help:

  • Use phones cautiously. Your abuser might listen to you on the phone, intercept your calls, or check your phone or caller ID to see who you’re texting or calling
  • Use a home computer cautiously. Your abuser might use spyware to monitor your email and online activity. Use a computer at work, the library, or a friend’s house to seek help
  • Remove GPS devices from your car. Your abuser could use a GPS device to pinpoint your location
  • Frequently change your email password. Choose ones that would be impossible for your abuser to guess
  • Clear your viewing history. Follow your browser’s instructions to clear evidence of websites or other information you’ve viewed