Domestic violence puts victims in danger of mental health illnesses

OPINION |
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As we bid goodbye to May, the Mental Health Awareness Month, it is gratifying to know that many people in Kenya and around the world took time to reflect on the reality that mental illness has become a major global health issue.

It is encouraging that many individuals, employers, and organisations have started taking mental health awareness seriously. However, it is disconcerting that many people still don’t see how domestic violence contributes to mental illness, especially among women.

There is increasing evidence of severe long-term mental health effects on victims of domestic violence. Studies show that most people who have experienced domestic violence may end up depressed.

Research has shown that intimate partner violence (IPV) causes a range of mental problems, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. In a study to identify risk factors associated with post-traumatic stress and depression in women living in informal settlements, results cited intimate partner violence as one of the contributing factors.

The study findings indicated that more than two-thirds of women in Kenya’s informal settlements report intimate partner violence and elevated psychological distress. Depression can lead to suicidal ideation or suicide attempts. IPV is also a major cause of death due to suicide and homicide.

Imagine a scenario where often a husband comes home, makes noise and fights the wife. The woman will be grappling with anxiety and worry daily in anticipation of the husband’s return. In such a case, even the sound of the gate opening causes her heart palpitations. Over time, this will lead to traumatic stress. Before long, she will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her self worth is affected because of the verbal abuse that often accompanies physical violence.

Abuse causes the victim to self-blame. It makes them feel there is something wrong with them, not the abuser. It is not that they have done something wrong; it is their “wrong”. Abuse makes them feel they are wrong – they are not the “right” human beings. This damages their self-worth.

Before they become self-aware and wake up to the fact that it’s not their fault, they ask themselves: What did I do wrong to warrant this? Abuse makes victims have negative feelings about themselves.

Abuse makes victims feel like they are a mistake; not that they have made a mistake themselves. It puts them at the risk of developing mental health conditions.

Abusers normally intimidate, belittle and humiliate their victims. This puts down their victims and makes them feel worthless.

In the end, most victims become less productive since they use the little energy they have to survive and hold it together.

As a therapist, I have seen people who have been very resilient but I have also seen people who have gone into depression. I have seen people who are dealing with anxiety disorders. I have seen people who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and hyper-vigilance.

Victims or survivors of abuse need empowerment to regain a sense of agency first and embark on a journey of healing. Accepting that they are victims of abuse and seeking help is the first step.  

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