PTSD and Intimate Partner Violence

When the media, treatment programs, and the general public address issues of domestic violence, it is common that the focus remains on physical abuse alone.  While physical abuse is incredibly harmful and is indeed one important issue in domestic violence, studies have proven that other types of abuse not involving physical harm can be just a psychologically damaging and disturbingly common.  According to one study of women in North Carolina, over 18% of the population had experienced intimate partner violence recently while less than 2% had experienced physical violence alone.  Other types of abuse include verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and stalking.

Verbal, psychological, and emotional abuse are all terms for a sinister and elusive form of intimate partner violence.  This includes threats, humiliation, name-calling, attempts to frighten, and attempts to isolate the partner or control his or her activities and relationships.  These kinds of abuse can be extra problematic because of the lack of physical evidence left behind, making most allegations of this form of abusive inherently difficult to prove.  Sexual abuse can be just as elusive, encompassing rape, sexual assault, sexual coercion, and sexual harassment within the bounds of a relationship.  These kinds of allegations can also be hard to prove, and are therefore often underestimated by the general public.

While these forms of abuse do not always get much recognition, they have an insidious effect on victims.  In recent studies, it has been found that these forms of abuse contribute heavily to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in IPV victims.  Highlighting the multifaceted nature of domestic violence, studies show that a combination of different forms of abuse can seriously contribute to PTSD, and it is most common that women who experience domestic violence experience it in more than one form.

Psychological violence has actually been shown to be a particularly strong contributor to PTSD, overshadowing even physical violence in its emotional aftereffects.  PTSD and depression are extremely prevalent in victims of psychological abuse.  There  has yet to be definitive findings on the effects of stalking and sexual coercion on the victim’s mental health.

Knowing that these forms of abuse can be as traumatic as physical abuse could help treatment programs and individuals better support victims of intimate partner violence.  While the physical violence is often what we recognize and treat, it is often not what causes the victim the most distress and it is important to acknowledge the validity of other kinds of trauma, because psychological trauma and an inability to accept and acknowledge it can actually prevent survivors of IPV from making a full recovery.

The link between mental health issues and intimate partner violence is clear and double-edged.  People with mental health issues are more likely to become involved in intimate partner violence as either the victim or the abuser, and involvement in these relationships often worsens mental illness.  The inextricable link between mental health problems and domestic violence reinforces that we must acknowledge all kinds of traumatic abuse and cater any treatment plans to meet the needs of a victim who has likely suffered more than just physical violence.

You can read more about the effects of mental health on victims of intimate partner violence in our examination of Violence Against Women

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