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Domestic abuse and mental health

There is a strong link between experiences of domestic abuse and the incidence of mental illness. Domestic abuse can be a trigger for a number of mental health issues, or exacerbate existing ones, the effects of which can be severe and long-lasting. Experience of domestic abuse has been linked to:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Self-harm

  • Suicide and attempted suicide

  • Eating disorders

  • Substance misuse

  • Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder

Survivors of domestic abuse are twice as likely to develop anxiety as those who have not, and hold three times the risk of developing depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disease [1]. Domestic abuse is the most common cause of depression amongst women [2], and 68% of domestic abuse victims are more likely to experience depression [3]. An estimated two-thirds of domestic abuse survivors experience post-traumatic stress disorder for the abuse [4].

Existing mental health issues can also leave someone more vulnerable to abuse and can act as a barrier to accessing support and services because of the stigma attached to mental health. Survivors with mental health needs may face additional judgement from social circles or services that can prevent them from seeking help, including a failure to believe accounts of abuse and sympathy for the accounts of perpetrators. SafeLives reports that 66% of domestic abuse survivors with mental health needs will be facing financial difficulties, compared to 54% without mental health needs, that may lead to further abuse [5]. You can read more about financial abuse here. Those who use alcohol and drugs might also face additional judgement and challenges in accessing support and services.

Women's Aid provides examples of how abusive partners may use someone's mental health struggles to perpetuate further abuse:

  • Telling you that you are "mad", "crazy", or unable to cope without them or the relationship.

  • In intimate relationships with children, an abuser may use mental illness to convince you that you are a bad parent and unable to look after children. Partners may threaten to take children away, tell social services, or tell children that you are unable to care for them.

  • Abusers may withhold medication or coerce someone into substance abuse.

  • Existing mental health conditions may be used to undermine claims of abuse against the perpetrator.

These abuse tactics can exacerbate exacerbate mental health illnesses and cause someone to blame themselves for abuse, increase emotional distress and significantly impact self-esteem and self-trust.

In the aftermath of leaving an abusive relationship, it it important that survivors have sufficient access to mental health support, particularly as feelings towards abusers are often complex and can incite feelings of loneliness, detachment and fear, as well as coping with trauma. It is important to remember that the effects of abuse do not end with leaving an abusive relationship or environment. There are long-term impacts that an individual will need to be supported with in order to process and recover from experiences of abuse.

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