Afraid to Leave: A discussion of the mental health consequences experienced by survivors of domestic violence and their families

This post is part of the Mental Health Monday series, in which iustitia examines one aspect of the intersections between mental health and the law. You can find previous posts here

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is the physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse of one’s partner. One in three women and one in four men are survivors of domestic violence. Domestic violence is experienced across genders, races, ages, and sexual orientations. Mental health and domestic violence are inextricably linked. Survivors of domestic violence often experience an array of mental health issues including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse, anxiety, personality disorders, sleeping disorders, eating disorders, and social dysfunction. The effects of domestic violence on the entire family can have dramatic legal and educational consequences, and subsequently break up families, if they are not dealt with vigilantly and compassionately.                                  

Exposure to domestic violence causes physical and mental consequences that endure and worsen if not addressed. PTSD is a mental health condition that is sparked by an alarming event. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable reactions. There are three main symptoms of PTSD experienced by domestic violence survivors: re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyper-arousal. Depression can be characterized by chronic sadness and symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, uncontrollable crying, loss of energy, and changes in appetite. Depression remains the most common symptom experienced by survivors of domestic violence.

Survivors of domestic violence often face further persecution when having to re-live these events in the courtroom. When attempting to obtain domestic violence restraining orders, survivors have to recount these events and face their abusers. This often perpetuates the mental health issues that they experience. In both the civil and criminal sense, survivors are often badgered by opposing or defense counsel and made to seem as if the domestic violence did not occur or was their fault to begin with. This attitude must change. It must be acknowledged that survivors of domestic violence deserve the protection of the courts to ensure their mental health remains safeguarded.

Moreover, research indicates that around ten percent to twenty percent of children are exposed to domestic violence every year. The effects are evidenced in “lower test scores as well as lower rates of college attendance and completion.” There are also direct implications for the classroom itself. Children who witness this violence are more likely to have behavioral problems and trouble performing in the class setting. School may be the only place that children feel that they have any power, because they are helpless at home. It is important that students have a relationship with their teachers and school officials where they feel heard, appreciated, valued, and respected.

One way to ensure this comfort is to employ counselors who work in the school system that are trained in helping children who are exposed to domestic violence. Although the effects of domestic violence occur in all populations, children who are exposed are ten times more likely to be seen in schools serving the poorest populations. This helps to show that the intersection of poverty, mental health, domestic violence, and the classroom must be acknowledged and addressed. A possible solution to these issues come in the form of reporting domestic violence when it occurs, forcing the school and school counselors to get involved. However, this involvement must be done safely and not further jeopardize the safety of the victims.  

Lawmakers, lawyers, and judges should take the mental health problems faced by survivors of domestic violence into account when dealing with custody issues, domestic violence restraining orders, and criminal prosecutions. Moreover, the legislature should ensure that school systems are endowed with the financial ability to afford counselors in the school setting. This will ensure that children who witness domestic violence are able to handle the mental health consequences with support. It is vital that the legal and educational systems acknowledge the mental health consequences of domestic violence to ensure that both primary survivors and children who are exposed to this violence are treated with these concerns in mind. It is only through naming the issues while working together with the legislature and the justice system, will survivors one day have the tools necessary to overcome the abuse they have experienced.

Also posted on medium.