The realities of domestic violence and relationship abuse stretch far beyond the stereotypical depictions often seen in media. While physical harm caused by domestic violence is sometimes evident, the impact of abuse on the mental health of survivors is often overlooked.
Survivors of domestic violence often face mental health challenges as a result of the abuse, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation. Because these mental health consequences can persist long after the abuse has ended, addressing the connection between mental health and domestic violence is critical—both to prevent further abuse and to provide appropriate, effective support and tools for healing to those affected.
Key Facts About Mental Health and Abuse
While research has often stated that mental health disorders are one of the risk factors for domestic violence, it is incredibly important to remember that a survivor’s mental health does not cause or contribute to their abuse. A person perpetuating abuse is the only one responsible for the behavior.
Because those perpetuating abuse seek to maintain power and control over their partners, they often look to exploit any mental health difficulties experienced by the survivor. For example, abusers can manipulate the trust and the potential isolation of their partner and may only provide support if their partner cooperates with their demands, or may use coercive and/or violent behavior to maintain power.
Additionally, it may be challenging for individuals already experiencing mental health difficulties to realize that they are being abused or exploited. This is because there are many similarities between the symptoms of common mental health conditions and the effects of the abuse. Lack of energy, feeling hopeless, having a negative self-view, and dissociation are all very common experiences for survivors.
Barriers for Survivors Struggling with Mental Health
In trying to access supportive services, survivors of domestic violence and those with mental health conditions often encounter shared obstacles:
- Financial and accessibility issues
- Struggling to find trauma-informed and/or culturally-sensitive service providers
- Consciously or subconsciously believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness
- The combined stigma of seeking mental health assistance and being in a relationship with a perpetrator of domestic violence
- Feeling ashamed or embarrassed about their situation, fearing that they will be judged by others
- Facing actual judgment from friends and family members who criticize them for being in an abusive relationship
All of these stigmas can make it incredibly challenging for survivors to access the help they need and deserve, potentially worsening their mental health conditions.
Although recognition of the association between domestic violence and mental health conditions has grown in the past decade, huge gaps and areas for improvement remain. It is important to build a system that supports domestic violence survivors with mental health difficulties and to highlight the ways that these two issues already overlap and impact one another.
Mental health services must use gender-sensitive and trauma-informed approaches and should be trained with survivor-centered approaches. Safe Passage recognizes the intersection of mental health and abuse and has a trained Mental Health Counselor/Advocate on staff to support survivors holding these multiple traumas.
Ways to Show Support
There are also plenty of ways community members can help shift the culture around mental health and domestic violence:
We each have the ability to validate and affirm the experiences that survivors in your life are sharing. People who perpetuate abuse often deny survivors’ experiences to make them distrust their reality.
Normalize that mental health struggles often exist alongside experiences of relationship abuse.
In building up resources and working to end stigma around each of these issues, we can help pave clearer paths toward healing.
Empower survivors by focusing on survivor-centered care:
Remember that each situation is different and survivors are the expert on their own experiences.
Avoid over-relying on mental health diagnoses
and use person-first language to humanize the survivor's experience: A diagnosis can help someone to understand their own experience, but it is not an end-point and can change over time.
Here at Safe Passage, we work everyday to make the realities of domestic violence and relationship visible. We know that it is absolutely necessary to invest more in structures that prevent domestic violence as well as comprehensive services for survivors. At the same time, we as community members still have work to do on educating ourselves about the real impacts that abuse can have on a survivor’s mental health and on combating stigma that prevents survivors from moving toward healing.
If you are or know someone who is looking for support around relationship abuse, please call our helpline (M-F, 9am-5pm) at (413) 586-5066, toll-free at (888) 345-5282, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233.
If you or someone you know needs support around mental health, call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988 or visit https://www.samhsa.gov/.