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It's National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Survivors Are Being Heard

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Key Takeaways

  • National Domestic Violence Awareness Month has been recognized in October in the US since 1987.
  • The pandemic forced many to spend more time in their homes, which may have exacerbated domestic violence issues.
  • Targeted efforts are needed to address the mental health impacts associated with domestic violence.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so it may provide a meaningful opportunity to learn more about resources that can support individuals who may be dealing with such challenging situations.

While domestic violence is often underreported, oppression can often exacerbate its risks, as Black, American Indian, and Alaskan Native women and the LGBTQ+ community experience more incidents of domestic abuse.

To address domestic violence, support groups can help individuals with the resources they need to ensure their safety, but it is also crucial to tackle the larger power structures that put marginalized groups at greater risk.

Information in this article might be triggering for some. If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Who Does Domestic Violence Impact?

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) defines domestic violence as "the willful intimidation as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another."

Domestic violence may sometimes be called intimate partner violence (IPV) and it affects individuals across all identities. While abuse has historically only been envisioned in the physical sense, domestic violence can also manifest emotionally, psychologically, financially, sexually, etc.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 5 women and approximately 1 in 7 men report an experience of serious physical violence by an intimate partner during the course of their life. Marginalized genders and sexual orientations are likely to face greater risks with domestic violence.

The CDC estimates that 45.1% of Black women and 40.1% of Black men report intimate partner violence, which includes physical and/or sexual violence, as well as stalking. According to the US Department of Justice, compared to non-Hispanic Whites, American Indian women are 1.6 times more likely to experience sexual violence from an intimate partner, and over half of American Indian women report experiences of sexual assault.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that about 4 million seniors experience various forms of abuse annually. The APA estimates that women with disabilities are at a 40% greater risk of experiencing IPV. According to the CDC, LGBTQ+ individuals report IPV at the same or higher rates than heterosexuals, with bisexual women disproportionately impacted.

Navigating Domestic Violence

Ashley Hubbard, a 35-year old freelance writer, based in Nashville, TN, personally understands the impact of oppression on domestic violence. She identifies as both bisexual and disabled, and says, “I had three very specific and terrible relationships, each one gradually worse than the other."

Hubbard explains that she was only 14 when her 16-year old boyfriend was possessive and controlling. "He turned me against my family and friends, as he treated me like I was the most important person and the most worthless person in the world all at the same time," she says.

During college, Hubbard moved to pursue a relationship with her boyfriend, who was in the military, on active duty, which led to them getting married quickly. "He would abuse me emotionally and mentally, he would pull my hair, punch things around me such as the wall, he would watch my every move, question everything, accuse me of anything," she says.

Looking back, Hubbard reflects that her husband also sexually abused her. "I was basically made to have sex with him or guilted into it, then he would buy me jewelry or whatever to make up for it," she says.

Hubbard explains, "When I was in my late 20s, I met my most recent abusive partner. He was the worst and I was with him the longest, 4 years. He was emotionally, mentally, financially, and sexually abusive. He was smart enough not to leave marks but would pull my hair, grab my arms tightly, punch everything around me, threaten to hurt our dog, etc."

Regarding mental health, Hubbard says, "With my first two abusive relationships, I was more resilient, younger, naive. I bounced back quicker. I also wasn't as self-aware and, in a weird way, I think that kind of shielded me. Looking back, I realize I have a lot of PTSD from those relationships. I just didn't realize I did at the time or even years later." 

With her most abusive relationship, Hubbard describes her mental health as fragile while she was in it. "I have extreme PTSD. I still have nightmares 3.5 years later about my ex, my anxiety is at an all-time high, and when I have depressive episodes, they are more extreme than before," she says. 

In terms of barriers, Hubbard struggled with even telling anyone about her experience of domestic violence, due to shame, which made leaving very difficult. "When you try to tell people how horrible he is behind closed doors, they just don't believe you. I find that to be one of the most difficult challenges because you feel 1000% alienated," she says. 

Hubbard explains, "Finances were a huge barrier. With my last ex, he had wiped out my savings, racked up my credit card debt, and had gotten me reliant on his business that I basically ran because he was always drunk. I knew I was going to have to start over completely when and if I left."

The Impact of COVID-19

Psychologist and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University, Gregory K. Moffatt, PhD, says, "COVID has magnified all problems in our culture. Abuse survivors often have had their lives so controlled they couldn't work, eat, or make a phone call without permission or without fear. Starting life over is very challenging and involves rebuilding, many times with few skills and few contacts."

A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Criminal Justice found a moderate to strong increase in domestic violence incidents between pre- and post-quarantine periods during COVID-19. It should be noted that estimates are likely underreported.

Gregory K. Moffatt, PhD

Abuse survivors often have had their lives so controlled they couldn't work, eat, or make a phone call without permission or without fear.

— Gregory K. Moffatt, PhD

Academic coach for Walden University’s College of Nursing Tempo programs, Pamela Glenn, CNM, APRN, says, "With the COVID-19 pandemic, victims have had less opportunity to escape an abusive situation, as well as less opportunity to reach out for assistance."

Director of quality assurance and innovation at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Rosemary Estrada-Rade, says, "We didn't initially see an increase at the hotline when the pandemic first started in March 2020. We think that was because survivors were in closer proximity to their partners who abused."

Estrada-Rade explains that isolation can exacerbate challenges and make the abuse worse. "We did see just about a 2.3% increase from 2019 to 2020, as our volume has continued to increase over the past five years, which can be due to better awareness, more media coverage, more ways to access us, etc. so we can't really isolate the pandemic as a source of that," she says.

Estrada-Rade highlights that the hotline tracked contacts that were talking about COVID-19 since March 2020, so if a survivor was reaching out and their partner was using COVID-19 as a threat, that was noted. "Since we started tracking that, we have received 30,538 contacts, in which the person mentioned COVID-19 as being part of their experience," she says.

Mental Health Consequences

Psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care CentersRashmi Parmar, MD, says, "Domestic violence trauma can have lasting effects on our body and brain that can manifest in various ways, including psychological, physical, neurobiological changes."

A 2016 study published in Global Health Action found that domestic violence survivors reported substantially more psychological distress, with twice as many participants reporting depression than the UK population, and three times as many participants reporting anxiety than the UK population.

Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DNP, FNP-BC, GNP-BC

The mental health effects of domestic violence cannot be seen, but are there, often for the rest of the survivor’s life.

— Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DNP, FNP-BC, GNP-BC

Faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Science in Nursing program, Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DNP, FNP-BC, GNP-BC, says, "The mental health effects of domestic violence cannot be seen, but are there, often for the rest of the survivor’s life."

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified art therapist at Guidance Teletherapy, says, “Survivors have been known to develop depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. These may come with symptoms of suicidal ideation, substance abuse and misuse, sleep disturbance, etc."

How to Help

Estrada-Rade describes the hotline as the only national 24/7 resource in the US, so they are available to survivors that reach out by phone, via chat, or by text. "When they reach out, they speak with an advocate who is trained in domestic violence, who is going to empathize with them, educate them about the abuse they're experiencing, who can safety plan and offer resources for additional support," she says.

This aligns well with Dr. Parmar's safety plan recommendation to spell out the steps one would take in case domestic violence escalates. The hotline's website even facilitates an interactive safety planning feature online, whereby the user can review such factors as home, school, job, children, etc.

Estrada-Rade reflects that as a former advocate over her 13 years with the hotline, she spoke with many concerned individuals. "We don't just talk to survivors of domestic violence, but we can also talk to family members and friends, who can be a vital part of someone's safety plan," she says.

By supporting concerned loved ones, the hotline can bridge a gap, as Landrum advised that survivors should find ways to grow and strengthen their support network. "When the support system is too small, it may not be able to provide the resources needed to keep the survivor safe," she says.

What This Means For You

As discussed, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month remains necessary to provide much-needed support to survivors. It is why Estrada-Rade says, "Domestic violence is a lot more than physical. It can be financial abuse, emotional abuse, or any patterns or behaviors that are used to control the other partner in the relationship."

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8 Sources
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