Family violence has significant mental health impacts and a growing body of research is recognising the far-reaching effects on women and children.
Family violence is common in Australia. For everyone involved, the physical, social and mental health effects can be devastating and long lasting. Family violence can happen to anyone and in any kind of relationship, and is most often perpetrated by a partner, but it can also be another family member.
Statistics from the Personal Safety Survey report that one in six women and one in 16 men have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous cohabiting partner. Additionally, one in four women and one in 20 men have experienced emotional abuse. One woman is killed every nine days and one man is killed every 29 days by a partner.
Anne-Laure Couineau, Director, Policy and Service Development at Phoenix Australia, says while family violence intervention most often focusses on keeping women and children safe, there is growing awareness of the importance of protecting mental health too.
“The mental health impacts of family violence are significant,” she says.
“Women are at increased risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. Women who have experienced family violence often feel shame, on edge most of the time, and undermined by the abuse in all areas of their lives including work, parenting, and maintaining friendships and family relationships. This can have a significant impact on their confidence and capacity to cope with everyday tasks and decisions.
“For example, if a woman is being constantly told by an abusive partner that she is not capable, that her decisions are always wrong, and that she is a bad person – her confidence is going to be severely affected. Whether other people believe and support women also affects how they feel about themselves.”
Living with family violence can have a significant impact on parenting.
“When you don’t feel safe or are constantly fearful of what your partner or family member will do, creating a safe environment for your children can be challenging. Women who have escaped violence but are still contending with the mental health fallout of violence can find it particularly hard to parent their children. For example, if you become distressed or feel overwhelmed, it can be difficult to help children feel secure or teach them to self-soothe. In order to cope, some women may withdraw to protect themselves, and so find it hard to be present with their children,” says Anne-Laure.
Children who witness or are aware of family violence can also experience PTSD, depression and anxiety. They may start acting younger and become clingy, have tantrums or wet their bed. They may also be irritable, and have disrupted sleep and nightmares. Problems at school, acting out and poor concentration can also be signs of children not doing well.
“For parents, it’s important to find a way of talking about what is happening that is safe for children. If children don’t know what is happening, they can become scared and blame themselves. For example, if they see Mum crying, they may decide it’s their fault. Or if Mum is depressed and stays in bed, a child may think, ‘what have I done?’
“Parents should give children enough information so that they understand what is happening such as, ‘Mum is feeling sad because of what is happening between her and Dad but it is not your fault and I am getting help, I am finding ways to make it better’. Present a positive message that it is not the child’s fault and that you are doing something about it.”
Maintaining a routine as much as possible can help children to feel safe. Routines that maintain family and social connection are particularly helpful, such as eating dinner together or maintaining a bedtime story. Day-to-day routines help anchor a child in stressful times.
Most importantly, mothers need to give themselves time to recover and heal. “This may mean making sure that someone looks after the children now and then so that you have time for yourself. Spend time with people who care and get practical help to rebuild your life. Talk to your GP to get a referral if you think the violence has impacted on your mental health,” says Anne-Laure.
Phoenix Australia believes there is a need for increased attention to the mental health needs of women and children exposed to family violence. This includes recognition by clinicians who should ask questions about family violence, and recognition by policy makers of the treatment needs of survivors through funding and commissioning of appropriate mental health services.
Anne-Laure says a range of professional services are available to help families dealing with the mental health impacts of family violence.
“Getting help is important. People who are affected can initially talk to a doctor who can then guide them to get help for themselves and their children. Family violence services (see below) can help with strategies to keep you safe and start rebuilding your life,” she says.
“Parents who get help for themselves are helping their children, too. Good social support and professional support are vital.”
Signs that you may need to seek help
If you experience any of the following issues and they are impacting your day-to-day life, ask your doctor what you can do or contact one of the services listed below.
- Being reminded and reliving violence
through flashbacks, nightmares, vivid and unwanted memories, and intense reactions when reminded of what happened
- Feeling tense and wound up
including feeling scared all the time or irritable, being easily startled or constantly on the lookout for danger, and having trouble sleeping or concentrating
- Avoiding reminders
such as activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings that bring back memories of the violence
- Difficult thoughts and feelings
such as sadness, hopelessness, emptiness, fear, anger, guilt, and feeling numb or cut off from friends and family
- Loss of interest and pleasure
including losing interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, or feeling less joy than usual
- Tiredness and loss of energy
including needing to sleep much more than usual. Other unexplained physical symptoms, like pain, nausea, and loss of appetite
- Reliance on drugs or alcohol to cope
This can be a problem if the use of drugs or alcohol stops a person from spending time with family, leads them to take risks they wouldn’t normally take, or causes further health problems.