Domestic abuse takes a toll on victims, and they experience all sorts of maladies as a result of the abuse they were put through, both in the short term and in the long term. This blog post will inform the reader about the health impacts that domestic abuse can have on adults and children.
Impacts on Adults
Individuals affected by domestic abuse often present with depression, and are more susceptible to suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other stress and anxiety disorders, insomnia, and eating disorders. They also have low self-esteem and confidence levels. Furthermore, domestic abuse can change the victim’s behavioural temperament permanently, especially when the victim is a child. Research shows that when children are abused, as early as adolescence they can engage in hypersexual, promiscuous, or disinhibited behaviours, as well as risky behaviours such as using illicit drugs, drinking heavily, and/or smoking.
Moreover, women who were sexually abused as children find it particularly difficult to connect in appropriate or safe ways, and are more prone to allowing abusive relationships to enter their lives. It is believed that this happens because these traumatised women cannot distinguish between men who show affection, and men who make sexual advances. For instance, they may think that expressions of affection or support are sexual advances and might respond sexually, and/or might think that expressions of sexual desire are ‘love’ and respond romantically. What this tells us is that individuals already affected by mental health problems as a result of their traumas are more vulnerable to being domestically abused, and likewise those experiencing domestic abuse are more likely to get mental health problems.
Domestic abuse can cause physical illness whether as a result of actual bodily harm (ABH), the stress associated with the abuse, and/or risky behaviours. ABH includes cuts, bruises, burns, bites, broken bones or teeth, as well as severe head injuries and damage to the eyes, ears, chest and abdomen. All these forms of ABH can consequently lead to long-term illness, disability, and/or death. If the victim is pregnant, domestic abuse can trigger a miscarriage or harm the fetus. Furthermore, sexual abuse can damage the genital, pelvic, and urinary areas whether through brute force or the transmission of infections. Risky behaviour can also lead to sexually transmitted diseases, self-injury, as well as other health problems associated with substance abuse.
Physical symptoms worsen mental health problems, and mental health problems also worsen physical symptoms. This is why people who already have disabilities-especially women- are more likely to be abused than non-disabled individuals due to their vulnerability regardless of whether the disability is motor, mental, or intellectual (SafeLives, n.d.). Perpetrators see vulnerability as an opportunity, and seek to exploit this deliberately.
All this is without mentioning yet the health impacts of female genital mutilation (FGM) which are devastating. Not only can FGM lead to all of the above mental health symptoms, it can also lead to tremendous physical impairments such as severe and long-term pain, infections, difficulty in walking or having sex; bleeding, cysts and abscesses from the wounds; difficulty urinating or experiencing incontinence, life-threatening complications during pregnancy and childbirth, infertility, and/or death.
Impacts on Children
Children are very vulnerable to distress, and this is why experiencing and/or witnessing domestic abuse can be severely traumatising for them. They might develop symptoms of anxiety and depression, have nightmares or intrusive flashbacks, clinical fear, behaviour that challenges, regression, aggression, withdrawal or lack of engagement, low self-esteem, self-harm, suicidal ideation, risky behaviours, and eating disorders. Indeed, when children are made to feel scared, confused and powerless; this can be introjected and a reaction formation can happen leading children to behave in similar ways to the perpetrator.
Children also experience physical symptoms when they have been exposed to domestic abuse. They might experience similar symptoms to adults such as injuries that can cause concussion or brain damage. They undergo epigenetic changes with every adverse experience, and they might become neglected, underfed, and unwashed if they are in an abusive environment. Moreover, they may present with bed-wetting difficulties, stomach and headaches, and a disrupted circadian rhythm. They might also present with self-injury, or injury obtained through risky behaviours.
Finally, children go through very intense transitions after domestic abuse has been exposed. They might have to move home, and away from friends. They might also experience a disruption to their education. They might develop an attachment trauma after they lose the abusive family member who they might not have perceived as abusive. They might find the conviction of the abusive relative traumatic. They may experience a change in quality of life, and in the worst case scenarios they might be separated from their parents and placed in foster care. All these factors increase the chances of developing health problems.
SafeLives (n.d.) ‘Spotlight #2: Disabled people and domestic abuse’ [Online]. Available at https://safelives.org.uk/knowledge-hub/spotlights/spotlight-2-disabled-people-and-domestic-abuse (accessed 21 February 2022).