Studies show that women who experience gender based violence such as domestic abuse, rape, or stalking are at increased risk to develop mental health problems during their lifetime. In fact, the more incidents of violence they have experienced, the more likely they are to suffer from a mental health crisis. On average, over half of the women seen by mental health providers are current or former victims of abuse, which can play a significant role in the development or exacerbation of their symptoms, increase their risk of re-victimization, and influence the course of their recovery. Common mental health issues experienced by victims of domestic violence include depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. These problems can manifest in symptoms such as flashbacks, hyper vigilance, a high startle response, nightmares, insomnia, substance abuse, and self harm or suicidal behaviors. Some symptoms may resolve when victims get safe, and are no longer subjected to the fear and hopelessness that come along with being victimized.
Mentally ill victims of domestic violence also face unique barriers when they try to seek help. For example, police, courts, social workers, family or neighbors may be less likely to believe their claims of abuse if they are known to have a mental health disorder. Abusers capitalize on this perception, and will often use the victim’s mental health status to convince her and others that she is imagining, exaggerating, or causing the violence. Also, people with mental health and/or substance abuse issues often have complex lives that abusers may seek to “fix” through violence and control, causing them to be even more vulnerable. Additionally, women with mental health problems often don’t meet the entry requirements for domestic violence shelters or transitional housing programs, thus making them more likely to remain in or return to an unsafe situation.
People facing mental health problems related to current or past domestic violence should seek counseling with a qualified professional who is experienced in dealing with abuse issues. They may also find it helpful to join a therapy group, so they can benefit from the support of others who have shared similar experiences. I would suggest starting the search for local resources by contacting the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. If counseling is not available or preferable, victims can seek out written or online materials that will help them to understand what has happened and normalize their reactions. Whether it’s a counselor or a trusted friend, it’s critical that victims talk about their abuse to someone supportive, so they can process their experiences and minimize the possibility that they will become involved with another abusive partner in the future.