Staying Safe

Domestic Abuse Affects Mental Health Long After It’s Over

May 14, 2021

An estimated 50% of all Canadian women have survived at least one incidence of sexual or physical violence. This estimate is also considered conservative since many girls and women do not report incidents of abuse. Violence against women is always an important issue, and even more so in the past year as rates have risen drastically around the world. In Ontario, the month of May is recognized as a time to raise awareness about the devastating impact of sexual assault on women and focus on steps taken to both stops this violence as well as support survivors. The first week of May in Canada is also a time to focus on the importance of mental health. The intertwining of violence against women and mental health is so important, as the two are very closely connected.

Research and studies show there is a strong link between violence, trauma, and mental health. The PTSD and effects suffered from any type of abuse can be long-lasting and have detrimental effects on women’s mental health. Numerous studies have shown that any type of assault or abuse can have mental health impacts that affect women into adulthood. Problems most associated with women and girls who have experienced violence include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, eating disorders, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide. Particularly, many women identify substance use as a way to cope with gender-based abuse and trauma.

upset little girl sitting in corner with arms resting on kneesChildhood abuse is also deeply rooted in future mental health concerns. This is why it is crucial that children who have suffered from abuse get the support needed to heal. Women who have been abused as children have significantly higher rates of anxiety disorders as well as alcohol dependence, compared to those without a history of childhood abuse. Children who do not receive appropriate care of trauma or the mental health disorders worsened by this trauma may also end up falling through the cracks into the correctional system. The rates of incarcerated women in Canada who have reported past sexual and/or physical abuse are staggering. The Canadian Women’s Health Network reports that in Canada 82% of federally sentenced women have experienced abuse. This rate rises to 90% for Indigenous women.

Unfortunately, the connections between trauma and mental health are often either ignored or dismissed. Many workers and anti-violence advocates do not feel equipped to support women with these intersecting concerns, and medical professionals are often not asking the necessary questions. When it comes to professionals dealing with depression, anxiety, or other signs of mental distress, practitioners must be routinely asking women about either current or past incidents of domestic violence. Furthermore, they should be adequately trained to respond to disclosures of domestic violence, and able to provide referrals to specialist services. Support and referrals can be paramount to ensuring women have the appropriate supports in place.

 It is crucial that both addiction and mental health services integrate trauma work. Applying a gender-based lens can be incredibly valuable in providing effective, integrated, gender-specific care for violence, trauma, mental health issues, and substance abuse.