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Domestic Violence and PTSD: Are You Suffering in Silence?


Shadowy image of woman behind smoked glass

Domestic violence in the United States is much more widespread than many realize. As with suicide, it is frequently hushed up or talked about behind closed doors.


But make no mistake – even if you haven’t personally been a victim, it certainly affects somebody that you know.


We know this to be true because the statistics make it so shockingly clear. According to the Domestic Violence Hotline, an average of 24 people are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by a partner every minute in the US. If you do the math, that amounts to over 12 million individuals every year, whether male or female.


Remember, that’s 12,000,000 every year, which means over 30 years there could feasibly be around 360,000,000 instances of domestic violence. That is more than the current population of the country.


What we mean when we talk about domestic violence

Domestic violence can also be known as domestic abuse or intimate partner violence. According to the United Nations, it can be defined as “as a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.”


It’s important to note that this definition covers more than physical violence – although this is often a characteristic – to also include psychological actions or threats that are meant to intimidate, hurt, manipulate, terrorize or cause other unnecessary suffering.


It is a problem that affects individuals of all ages, sexual orientations, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, or more. In short, it is a problem for our entire society.


Domestic violence and gender

While the harm that men experience due to domestic violence should never be underestimated (in fact, around 1 in 10 male victims in the US), it is an issue that more commonly affects women.


Nearly 3 in 10 women or 29% of the population have experienced rape, violence, or stalking by a partner, which as impacted their functioning. Over the course of a lifetime, over 1 in 3 women will have experienced domestic violence.


To put it into perspective, think about the women you know in your life. If you know just three women (or two if you are female), one of them will statistically be affected at some point by domestic violence. Given that the average person has hundreds of acquaintances, someone you care about is affected.


Although this problem is more widespread among women, we shouldn’t forget the men who also suffer from intimate partner violence. While 1 in 3 women will experience violence in some form, 1 in 4 men in the US will have a similar experience. All victims are victims and the lasting effect it can have on all of them is substantial.


The lasting effects on mental health

First and foremost, domestic violence can be fatal, whether due to direct violence or as the result of mental health struggles. Again, this is more common among female victims, with a reported 2,997 women murdered in 2019 in the US.


More recent statistics show that 1 in 5 homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, and domestic violence accounts for half of all murders with female victims.


When we consider the effects of domestic violence survivors, there is a lot to take into account. Remember, not all domestic violence manifests in the same way. Where some may be sexual in nature, in other instances it may be physical violence, causing psychological stress, or a combination of each.


Instances of domestic violence may be isolated or follow a pattern over a long period of time. No two victims will necessarily react in the same way to domestic violence, some will recover quickly while others may be burdened with ongoing physical or mental health issues.


Short-to-long-term effects

We can identify common trends in the physical effects of domestic violence, which can include:

  • Cardiovascular issues

  • Gastrointestinal or digestive problems

  • Chronic pain

  • Sexual or reproductive issues

  • Symptoms of pulmonary or musculoskeletal conditions

  • Traumatic brain injury

Mental health effects

For around 20% of survivors, even after full physical recovery, the lasting impact on their mental health could arguably be more damaging. Some common conditions include:

  • Major depressive disorder

  • Generalized anxiety disorder

  • Substance use disorders

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder in domestic violence victims

When we think about post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, many people will often make the leap to veterans who have suffered the horrors of war. The reality is that individuals can develop PTSD from any highly stressful situation, whether war, a severe car accident, more extreme forms of bullying, because of experiences due to their race, or domestic violence, just to name a few.


Of course, not everybody that experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Depending on the source, between 50% and 70% of US adults will suffer from an event or episode that could be described as “traumatic” and yet only 20% (or lower) will develop PTSD as a result.


Not all PTSD is the same

An individual who suffers from PTSD will always require professional support and can expect a long process of recovery. Unfortunately, this can be more complex to achieve depending on the type of PTSD.


If we take the example of a severe car accident, the traumatic event has a definitive start and end point, which can be used as a basis for recovery. When it comes to domestic violence – a type of trauma more rooted in fear, control, and skewed power dynamics – it can be difficult for victims to feel they have escaped the traumatic situation. This can lead to Complex PTSD, which is a more chronic form of PTSD.


Am I suffering from C-PTSD?

Before diagnosis, individuals who suffer from PTSD may exhibit behaviors that are entirely new. This can be just as confusing for the victim as it is for their friends and family.


In fact, it is very common for the individuals themselves who suffer from PTSD to have no idea why they are acting in a certain way. So, what does PTSD look like?


According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, symptoms of C-PTSD include increased aggression and impulsive behavior, rage, depression, changes in identity, difficulty keeping relationships or sleeping, and even physical symptoms that cannot be traced to a specific cause.


Internally, the individual may find it difficult to sleep or suffer from nightmares. They could also be more easily distracted than normal or have overwhelming feelings of shame or guilt, which can lead to avoidance, trust issues, moodiness, or dissociation.


No two cases are entirely the same, but when it comes to PTSD rooted in domestic violence, a common result is a difficulty to form relationships or trust others around them.


If you still aren’t sure, you can carry out a preliminary PTSD test to get a better idea of your situation.


Don’t suffer in silence

If you are the victim of domestic violence and haven’t felt the same since the abuse ended, we strongly recommend seeking professional help.


Whether you are diagnosed with PTSD or not, it is important that you get the support necessary to realign your life trajectory and head toward a more positive future.


At MHAI of Illinois, we are always available to help anyone struggling with their mental health. Please don’t delay – reach out to us now if you are feeling low. Resources for Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking

National Domestic Violence Hotline

  • 800-799-7233

Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline


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