Women’s experiences of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Impact of domestic violence and abuse on women’s mental health

It is now generally recognised that experiencing domestic violence and abuse is associated with mental health problems including anxiety and depression. These issues can make the abusive situation even worse, as the partner or ex-partner may make use a mental health diagnosis (for example, telling someone that they’re ‘mad’). It can also be difficult for health professionals to see beyond the mental health issues and to recognise that an abusive relationship may be at the heart of the problems. It is, therefore, important that professionals recognise the wider impacts for those living in an abusive relationship, and are able to offer the appropriate support. 

Most of the women we interviewed suffered from anxiety and depression at some stage. Many had been on medication to treat depression, and a few had been ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act*. Many women were concerned that a diagnosis of mental health issues could be used by their partner against them in child residency and contact proceedings. This meant that they were reluctant to talk to their GPs (see ‘Getting help from doctors and other health professionals for domestic violence and abuse’) although when they did, some at least were given appropriate support. We also heard positive stories, with women such as Tina describing how much better she feels now that she is no longer in an abusive relationship.
Depression and anxiety

Some women described how the depression and anxiety they experienced carried on after leaving the relationship. Sometimes, they were not always sure at first what was wrong with them. Penny, described herself as feeling:

‘So crap I kept bursting into tears. …And not sleeping, waking up at three o’clock with scrambled egg brain. And I was just a wreck really. I just, yeah, I was bursting into tears all the time.’

Even after leaving the relationship, women described experiencing panic attacks, had flashbacks or nightmares, self-harmed, and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. This could make it difficult to socialise or trust other people. As Penny explained, she felt angry with her ex-partner because he had ‘made [her] less trusting of people. More wary. Because he just took [her] in.’ (See also ‘Coercive Controlling Behaviour’, ‘Life after violence and abuse: ongoing harassment’ and ‘Emotional-pychological abuse and impact on self-esteem’.)
Irina also described her feelings of depression. She talked about her childhood dreams of being happily married, but the reality was that she was miserable and hoped her husband would go away:

‘You know, I was raised in love, and care, and respect. And I just, I couldn’t understand just lying and crying in bed, just, why, why someone can treat me like that. ...[As] a little girl I felt I’m going to have a husband, and I will be happy and we will have children and I will work and I will be perfect wife and he will be perfect husband, and everything will be nice. And suddenly I realised that my childhood dream stayed there and I’m in a dark, darkness, just crying, depressed all the time, waiting for him to go on business trips.’

Women such as Catherine found that the impact on their mental health left them feeling exhausted (see also Emotional-pychological abuse and impact on self-esteem’)
Getting help for mental health issues

Sooner or later, most of the women who experienced mental health issues approached their GP for help. Some felt that the GP really knew what to do for them. Melanie believed that because of the way she presented herself – always neat and tidy – that her GP did not know how to help her. Like other women, she also was scared of taking medication for depression or of being ‘labelled’ depressed – but eventually realised that she needed additional help in order to deal with the aftermath of being in an abusive relationship.
Partners using mental health as a means of abuse

Several women described ways in which partners used mental health issues as a form of abuse. Both Lindsay and Min, following manipulation and false allegations by their partners, were ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act*.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Many women had been diagnosed with PTSD after leaving their relationships and were dealing with all the symptoms that can cause. Women suffering from PTSD needed specialist help (see ‘Getting help from doctors and other health professionals for domestic violence and abuse’).
Suffering from PTSD, in itself, can be a frightening experience as Sue described.
Flashbacks and nightmares

Another symptom of PTSD that women talked about was suffering from flashbacks and nightmares, which in some cases continued for years after leaving the abusive relationship. Anna, for example, vividly described having flashbacks of her ex-partner trying to suffocate her.
Hypervigilance and panic attacks 

Some women described being ‘hypervigilant’ (constantly on edge for any signs of danger) and many also suffered from panic attacks and found it hard to relax. Mandy said:

‘I was always looking over my shoulder. I always lock the car door as soon as I get in. I always keep my front door locked.’
Lindsay described tying strings to doors so she could see if anyone had tried to get into her home.
For a while after leaving, Ella said she had to be accompanied when she went shopping because she had panic attacks.
Feeling like you’re going ‘crazy’

Many of the women described doubting their sanity at times. Shaina said: I felt like I was going crazy. …Because he made me believe I was crazy.’ 

Kanya described having medication and counselling but realised the only way to feel better was to get away from her partner.
A few of the women used the term ‘gas-lighting’ to refer to their experiences of abuse. This is a term used to describe a technique of psychological manipulation that makes the person doubt their own sanity*.

Another impact on mental health was described by several of the women who felt so low that at times they self-harmed, or, in some cases, made suicide attempts.
Others, such as Stephanie explained that they wanted to ‘hurt’ themselves. 

‘…I feel quite ashamed about this actually, I did self-harm a couple of times as well, I have a scar on my wrist where I went at myself with a pair of scissors because I was just so upset with myself …for being in that situation and I wanted to hurt myself for it.’
Anna also described self-harming ‘to get some of the pain out. …I would pull my hair out. Just, just to take some pain.’

Whereas some women used more obvious means to hurt themselves, others used alcohol and drugs as a way to escape the abuse they were experiencing.
A few women, including Tina and Min described their partners actually encouraging them to kill themselves.
Being 'sectioned' is the term that is often used when someone is detained under the Mental Health Act. The Mental Health Act is the law which can allow someone to be admitted, detained (or kept) and treated in hospital against their wishes.


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