Consequences of Domestic Abuse on Women’s Mental Health.

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Consequences of Domestic Abuse on Women’s Mental Health

Abuse, whether physical, verbal or emotional, can have serious repercussions on its victim. As with any atrocity, the person begins to wonder why them and whether it was their fault. Abuse coming from someone close to a person, is even more emotionally scarring- leading to a series of questions and confusion. Mental health, which lies on a spectrum of mental illness to mental wellbeing, is affected strongly by such outward forces. In certain communities, domestic abuse and intimate partner violence has almost become normalised. How confusing, then, must it be for victims, who would wonder why such a distressing thing is: a) normal and b) not to be spoken about. They often end up on the receiving end of abuse from their partners as well as a blame from the society.

Expecting a degree of affection in a marriage is what most may consider a realistic want. For some, instead of feeling love and affection for their partner, all they may feel is fear, anger and shame. Being a victim of domestic abuse is a confusing space to be in. At one end, your partner hits you, yells at you, causes bruises and at the other end they may express guilt, regret and apologise.

Abuse tends to go run a cycle. At first, there may be a buildup of tension, followed by an incident of anger, hitting, blame, argument, threats- referred to as the ‘abuse’. Later, there is a stage of reconciliation when the abuser apologises for their behaviour, expresses fake remorse or blames the client for making it a big deal. This phase is followed by a ‘honeymoon phase’ where the abuse is forgotten and everything seems to be going as usual, but is most often the calm before the storm.

The victim may be aware of the cycle, but may be wishing every time for things to go a better way, only to be disappointed. This switch from affection to anger may be very disturbing for the victim- spiralling them into confusion. They may feel anger towards their abuser, shame for being victimised and bruised, helpless because they think they cannot do anything, hopeless because their expectations get drenched at every turn of the cycle.

Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are stark features of strained mental health and conditions such as depression. The perpetrator may be seen to verbally abuse the victim, call them names and point out their flaws or insecurities. The victim may begin to internalise the abuser’s comments, beginning to feel that they deserve the abuse, leading to feelings of worthlessness. The trauma faced by these victims leads them to reframe their thoughts such that they begin to perceive that they have no agency in controlling their own lives, spiralling into further hopelessness. These are further symptoms of depression, which may come up in a victim of domestic abuse. The partners who perpetrate abuse may also belittle the victim outside of the home setup, with constant taunts. This leads to embarrassment and shame in the victim, leading to possible isolation and worsening of depressive symptoms.

Suicidal ideations and actions are a high possibility in such situations, where the victim may feel let down by their own family and perceive their lives to be hopeless. In therapy, a suicide risk assessment may be done, where the content of their suicidal ideations is evaluated, and risk is estimated through an interview about the level of planning that they have done. If the risk here is deemed to be high, immediate management may be necessary, such as building immediate coping mechanisms. Their strengths may be discussed, and reasons for living are generated by clearing their environment of any sharp, potentially lethal objects.

In cases of physical harm, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may also be prevalent. Witnessing a threat to their life may lead to recurrent distressing memories of the violence or dreams containing themes of the violence. One may also have flashbacks or dissociative reactions around the event. Further, they may try to avoid activities that remind them of the violence. There may be behaviours of hyper vigilance and exaggerated startle responses, issues with concentration and sleep.

In such cases, a safe haven and psychological therapy may benefit the victims to a large extent. The National Commission for Women offers several helplines that aim to assist women in need. Mental Health therapy for victims of domestic abuse would focus on building an agency for themselves. The mental health therapist would tap into their strengths, help demarcate personal boundaries and make an emotional safety plan of things to do to alleviate distress as well as practice self-care. The approach may vary, ranging from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to Trauma Focussed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or Humanistic therapy.

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About the author -
Chinmayee Bagul is a Clinical Psychology with the qualifications, M.Phil. in Clinical Psychology (Amity University, Madhya Pradesh, M.Sc. In Psychology (Child, Clinical and Industrial) from The Indian Institute of Psychology and Research, Bangalore. B.A. in Psychology from The D.G. Ruparel College, Mumbai. Additionally, qualifications- PG Diploma in Clinical Hypnosis and UGC-NET (Psychology) qualified for Assistant Professorship.

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