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May 26, 2020

Loss of Agency: How Domestic Violence Impacts Mental Health

Different members from Women’s Advocates’ Staff periodically write posts on topics that are relevant to the work we do as an organization.  While Women’s Advocates is supported by Grant No. A-CVS-2018-WOMADV-00013, awarded by the Office on Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs – the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.  

Read the full web page on domestic violence and mental health, here.

Over the past few decades, there has been an increased public awareness and consciousness of mental health wellness. When many people think about their health, they often think about their physical health and are drawn to pay more attention to it when they are experiencing various symptoms. Somatic (bodily) symptoms for which no clear physical basis can be found are ubiquitous in traumatized children and adults: chronic back and neck pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, digestive problems, spastic colon/irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, and some forms of asthma. 

These physical symptoms can be manifestations of imbalances in the other dimensions of wellness that include physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, environmental, and occupational. Holistic health takes into account all of these aspects of one’s life and views them as interconnected. So when someone experiences something traumatic, such as domestic violence, their entire bodily systems and all dimensions of wellness are impacted in some way- particularly one’s emotional wellness.

Everyone has mental health. Whether that’s mental health concerns, mental health wellness or somewhere in between. “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.” One’s ability to maintain their mental health can be changed by experiencing chronic stress, anxiety, fear, shame, and sadness that comes with domestic violence. 

Link Between Mental Health and Domestic Violence: The Statistics 

  • On average, more than half of the women seen in mental health settings are being or have been abused by an intimate partner.
  • There are specific diagnoses that are commonly experienced by these women: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.
  • Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological, arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory- changes that wouldn’t necessarily result in a psychological diagnosis. 

It’s important to understand that someone’s mental health can be impacted without having PTSD, depression, or anxiety. Whether or not someone develops PTSD as a result of domestic violence depends on numerous factors, not everyone is impacted in the same way.

  • The ways in which a victim-survivor’s mental health can be impacted can include: difficulties with being productive at work, school, with caregiving, establishing and engaging in healthy relationships, and adapting to change and coping with adversity. 

A victim-survivor’s mental health can also be weaponized and used as another form of violence and harm. Mental health coercion is a commonly used tactic that is targeted toward the victim-survivor’s mental health as part of a broader pattern of abuse and control. Other common tactics that target mental health include other forms of emotional abuse, especially gaslighting

Lasting Impacts: Loss of Agency

A common experience for domestic violence victim-survivors that has ways of impacting their mental health wellness is a loss of agency. Agency is the technical term for the feeling of being in charge of your life: knowing where you stand, knowing that you have a say in what happens to you, knowing that you have some ability to shape your circumstances. Trauma can shut down victim-survivors inner compass and rob them of the imagination they need to create something better. 

Not being able to discern what is going on inside their bodies causes them to be out of touch with their needs and they have trouble taking care of themselves. This failure to be in touch with their bodies contributes to their well-documented lack of self-protection and high rates of revictimization and also to their remarkable difficulties feeling pleasure, sensuality, and having a sense of meaning.” 

Role of Mental Health Professionals

At Women’s Advocates, the first domestic violence shelter in the nation, we value the promotion of mental health wellness for everyone victim-survivor who stays with us. Our licensed mental health therapist, Saran, offers mental health wellness for body, mind, and spirit. She provides individual and family therapy to women and children who have been directly affected by domestic violence.

  • She uses several therapeutic models to explore emotional functioning, insight into belief systems and perceptions, individuals’ inner strength, and goal setting.
  • The goal of therapy is to improve coping skills, develop new ways of working through problems, enhance self-confidence, and strengthen resilience. 

Ways to Promote Mental Health Wellness for Victim-Survivors 

Seek Trauma-Informed Support and Help

Learn more

Written by Brenisen (bwheeler@wadvocates.org), Education and Outreach Coordinator at Women’s Advocates 
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