The mental effects of domestic abuse

Relationships|June 11th 2019

I suspect that when most people think of domestic abuse they envisage physical abuse, and physical injuries to the victim. At least that is likely to be the case with people who have not experienced abuse, or witnessed it, whether first- or second-hand. But domestic abuse, even of the physical kind, can also seriously affect the mental state of the victim. Of course, it has long been well known that abuse of whatever kind can have a serious detrimental effect upon the victim’s mental state, but new research suggests that the effect is considerably more serious than, I suspect, many would have imagined.

The research was carried out by Birmingham University and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. It should be noted at the outset that the research looked only at female survivors of domestic abuse, or “intimate partner violence” (‘IPV’), as the researchers called it, although I see no reason why the findings would not be similar with male survivors. They matched 18,547 women exposed to IPV between the 1st of January 1995 and the 1st of December 2017, to 74,188 unexposed women, identifying ‘outcomes of interest’ (anxiety, depression and serious mental illness).

The research found that 49.5% of women in the exposed group had some form of mental illness, compared with 24% in the unexposed group. That would suggest that women exposed to domestic abuse are about twice as likely to suffer mental health problems as women who have not been exposed to domestic abuse. However, the effect of abuse is actually worse than that. About half of the women in the exposed group had already experienced some form of mental health problem, whereas only about a quarter of those in the unexposed group had. The effect of this (as I read it) is that women exposed to domestic abuse are actually about three times as likely to suffer mental health problems as women who have not been exposed to domestic abuse.

That is quite a significant finding, indicating that the effects of domestic abuse are potentially even more serious than previously thought. And it may be trite to drag this up, but it is surely a truism: physical scars may heal quite quickly, but mental scars can take much longer. The adverse effects of domestic abuse may stay with victims long after the abuse has ended.

Obviously, as the researchers point out, the study could have important implications for health practitioners when treating women (and no doubt also men) with mental health problems. But could it have any implications in the field of law?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that it could have any direct implications, other than to make us all even more aware of the adverse effects of domestic abuse, and of how important it is that we do all we can to reduce the incidence of abuse, and to ensure that its victims are protected as quickly as possible.

We are not, for example, concerned here with the type of abuse. The study does not distinguish between different types of abuse, merely looking at the effect of abuse generally upon the mental health of the victim. We are not therefore considering whether the definition of abuse should be extended to cover other types of abuse. The Government is already intending to introduce a revised definition of domestic abuse in its Domestic Abuse Bill, as I explained in this post, and that definition will include “psychological, emotional or other abuse”, which obviously can have a direct effect upon the victim’s mental health.

But there are also indirect implications. Take, for example, the issue of child arrangements in a case where there have been findings of domestic abuse. It is easy to see that the effect of that abuse upon the mental health of the ‘victim parent’ could certainly have a bearing upon what arrangements are appropriate. For example, if the parent with whom the child lives suffers from anxiety problems resulting from abuse by the other parent, then that obviously must be taken into account when formulating any contact arrangements.

In short, research like this helps to inform those who have to make decisions in the family courts, and those who advise the decision makers.

You can read the research study here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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Comment(1)

  1. Stitchedup says:

    New cases of mental health issues appear to be 24.75% vs 18% so approximately a third more likely??

    Interesting that a high proportion of those alleging abuse have pre-existing mental health issues… This should not be ignored.

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