Serious long-term health effects are the latest in a troubling list of consequences faced by women who are in abusive relationships, researchers have discovered.
Colleen Varcoe, a professor at the UBC School of Nursing, and her team studied the health impacts of intimate-partner violence on women. They discovered that both mental and physical health consequences are pervasive and long-lasting.
These “health effects don’t diminish appreciably over time,” said Varcoe. There is an “inability to regulate pain properly when you’ve experienced trauma.”
These effects include altered immune activity, chronic pain, stomach problems, high blood pressure, mood disorders, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It affects a person’s ability to concentrate, to pursue education, to obtain and maintain employment. All those things are also interrelated with mood disorders such as depression,” Varcoe said.
One woman’s story
One woman who still lives with the consequences of past violence is Dawn Taylor. A survivor of domestic violence, she spent almost 12 years in prison convicted in the murder of her common law-partner. She says it was an act of self-defence.
“I know that I’m a good person, that I was before I met him, and that I absolutely have a right to be alive,” said Taylor, who spoke at a recent Surrey Coalition Against Domestic Abuse conference.
It is only recently that she has spoken publicly about what she describes as her survival and not her sentence.
“I have panic problems, I’ve had anxiety consistently since I met that man. I still am very much a people-pleaser,” she said.
These days, Taylor is in a healthy relationship and she spends a good deal of her time caring for dogs. She learned canine training skills through a Corrections Canada guide dog-pilot program.
Dawn Taylor: Meeting her partner and the struggle to leave (2’17”)
“That gave me the ability to come out of really heavy suicidal depression for six years. These guys kept me motivated,” she said.
The research on the lasting impact of abuse does not surprise WAVAW Aboriginal Family Counselor Jodie Millward, who works with survivors of violence.
“A lot of the women are processing trauma, and they’re processing grief and sadness and anxiety, a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear in the world, loud noises, things that trigger flashbacks,” she said.
“And they live with that everyday, as well as the physical pains that they’re suffering through.”
Intimate-partner violence is a pattern of coercive control that escalates gradually over time. It is a social problem that affects women from all backgrounds.
Dawn Taylor on the lasting impacts of violence (1’44”)
Researchers explain that violence is influenced by broad systems of oppression including patriarchy.
Varcoe’s research shows that violence and its effects do not end when women leave abusive partners. Their study found that at least half of women are harassed by former partners within the first three years after leaving. There are also few health services that support women during or after this transition.
“When we look at femicide studies, we know that the majority of women are killed after they leave an abusive partner or at least they are threatening to leave an abusive partner,” Varcoe said.
There are many complex reasons why women do not leave abusive relationships including finances, shared children, and threats of violence.
“Going back is sometimes the easiest thing to do and the safest thing to do,” said Millward.
Intimate-partner violence is largely misunderstood as coverage tends to focus on individual women at the expense of the larger social issue of violence.
“We’re really allowing violence against women to happen because we’re not putting the responsibility where it needs to be,” Millward said.
The new research has also shown that the effects of violence on a person’s life are cumulative. Exposure to one form of violence makes a person vulnerable to other forms of violence.
A better approach
The larger cost to society of intimate-partner violence is tremendous. Varcoe’s team found in a study of just selective expenses that it costs $13,000 per woman per year more in service costs, about $5,000 accounting for health care alone. The numbers are high despite the fact that many women do not continue to access services because of past negative experiences.
“Women who have been in domestic violence for 10 or 15 years maybe went to the doctor a lot in the beginning for a broken arm or a broken rib but, once the doctor started to catch on what was going on, they stopped going, because there was no trust there in the medical system,” said Millward.
This suggests a need for collaboration between different services, including health care, domestic violence, social services, and the legal system. Varcoe noted the Surrey Coalition Against Domestic Abuse-where she recently presented her research, is a model.
Varcoe and her team are working on a project, iHEAL, that is looking at a more comprehensive approach to care for women after leaving. It is a health care-intervention informed by trauma and violence, where nurses and domestic violence-advocates work one on one with women.