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Domestic violence impact lasts a lifetime

Media Release: 13th June 2017

Women who experience intimate partner violence have significant, long-term physical and mental health problems according to researchers from the University of Newcastle who tracked three generations of women for 16 years.

Professor Deborah Loxton, from the Research Centre for Generational Health and Ageing and Hunter Medical Research Institute Public Health Program, said that domestic violence can lead to poor mental health, including depression and anxiety, and that these issues can last many years.

“Domestic abuse is also associated with a higher prevalence of chronic pain and headaches, cervical cancer, chronic disease, and problems with physical function that affect quality of life,” Professor Loxton said.

“Many people don’t realise that stressful life events impact physical health as well as mental health. It’s vital for clinicians and healthcare workers to understand that these women’s health issues are real, and that they are long lasting.” 

This is the first paper to investigate the health impacts of domestic violence over such a long period of time. The researchers followed 16,761 participants in the Women’s Health Australia study (also known as the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health) for 16 years.

The three groups of women, born from 1921-1926, 1946-1951 and 1973-1978, were asked whether they had ever been in a violent relationship and answered regular surveys assessing their physical and mental health.

The researchers found that as the groups aged the women’s physical function and general health decreased and their bodily pain increased, which is to be expected, however the physical health of women who experienced domestic violence was consistently worse.

Overall, women’s mental health steadily improved with age, but women who experienced abuse had consistently worse mental health than those who had not.

“One of the interesting findings was that poor mental health was a risk factor in women entering into abusive relationships, as well as being a consequence of abuse,” Professor Loxton added. “This indicates that appropriate mental health care can play a role in the prevention of domestic violence.

Professor Loxton said interventions and support available to women are frequently for the immediate crisis period, with many people believing that ‘if she leaves, then she’ll be alright’.

“Unfortunately, the reality for one in four Australian women is that the physical and mental health impacts of domestic violence could last a lifetime,” she said. “We need policies and interventions in place to provide support for the women who are still feeling the impact 10 or 20 years later.

“From our other ongoing research, we know social support can be very helpful – women with social support, like accessible psychological care or support networks, do better in the long-term.”

The research is published in PLoS ONE as open access article.

Professor Deborah Loxton is co-director of the University of Newcastle Research Centre for Generational Health and Ageing and Deputy Director of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH). She researches in conjunction with HMRI’s Public Health Program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

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