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Mental Health Matters: Domestic violence a problem in our communities

Andy Whyman, MD
Special to the Bonanza

The Sierra Sun (1/14/15) and Bonanza (1/15/15) headlines read, “Man arrested, 2 sought in home invasion.”

The story was about a father of two small children who broke into an apartment in Incline Village with two accomplices, used sticks to hit the children’s mother and her boyfriend and then took the children to his residence in Kings Beach, before turning himself in to the police.

Days later a man shot his wife in a mall in Florida and then shot himself in what police described as a “domestic violence incident.”

Another incident, this one in Tennessee, described a sheriff’s deputy charged with domestic assault and driving under the influence.

“Historically, domestic violence was seen as a private family matter of little concern to the larger community. Now it’s a social, psychological, economic and criminal justice matter about which we know a great deal.”

If you want more, Google “Domestic Violence.” These types of incidents occur all over America every day.

The numbers are startling: One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. One woman is beaten by her husband or partner every 15 seconds.

Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, and 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women.

The number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 was 6,488. The number of women murdered by a current or ex-male partner was 11,766.

Police report that between 40 percent and 60 percent of calls are domestic violence disputes. Of the 771 police officer killings between 1996 and 2009, 106 occurred during domestic violence interventions (See Police Chief Magazine, January, 2015).

The average prison sentence of men who kill female partners is 2 to 6 years. On average, women who kill male partners are sentenced to 15 years.

People with incomes below $25,000 are at three times higher risk for domestic violence.

Historically, domestic violence was seen as a private family matter of little concern to the larger community. Now it’s a social, psychological, economic and criminal justice matter about which we know a great deal.

We know that domestic abusers frequently believe that their behavior is justifiable and acceptable.

We know that domestic violence frequently involves a relationship cycle of rising tensions followed by a violent act followed by reconciliation, and a period of calm, followed by another cycle of violence.

We know that abusers frequently have personality issues typified by bursts of anger, poor impulse control and poor self esteem.

We know that between 30 percent and 80 percent of abusers have personality problems or mental illness.

We know that substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse, and mental illness are risk factors for domestic violence.

We know that victims of domestic violence suffer from high levels of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders and substance abuse.

We know that victims of domestic violence frequently have poor coping skills, suffer social isolation and pathological dependency on their abuser.

We know that children who live in violent households show poor impulse control and aggression from an early age. We know that one of every three abused children becomes an adult abuser or victim.

We know that witnessing violence between one’s parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.

We know that women tend to under report being victims of domestic violence due to both fear and ignorance. Frequently, women rationalize their abuser’s behavior, i.e., “he really loves me”; or, they blame themselves, i.e., “I should be more understanding, I should clean the house better, I should have his meals ready on time.” The list goes on.

We also know that domestic violence is a community problem: Nearly 75 percent of Americans know someone who has been a victim of domestic violence. Some 30 percent of Americans say they know a woman who has been physically abused by a spouse or boyfriend in the past year.

My thoughts:

1. Household violence is unequivocally and always totally unacceptable. Seek immediate assistance should it occur. Call your hotline, shelter or social service agency.

2. Domestic violence is never a sudden, spontaneous, unforeseen eruption. There is always a back story, an accretion of grievances, slights, irritants, disappointments and blame.

3. Shame, fear, stigma and social isolation all contribute to under reporting domestic violence. Again, seek assistance. These situations tend to get worse and then potentially lethal.

4. Help those in need. If you know someone who experiences domestic violence, talk to him or her. Lead them to help. This may mean overcoming your own inhibitions and rationalizations, i.e., “It’s none of my business, it’s not that bad, I don’t want to cause trouble.”

5. Children are invariably negatively impacted by domestic violence. Seek help for them.

6. If you work in the criminal justice system, consider that punishment alone rarely prevents future abuse.

7. Remember that domestic violence is a potentially lethal dynamic. Early intervention, at the risk of embarrassing someone, is worth that embarrassment.

An effective response to domestic violence requires the coordinated infusion of community resources including education, advocacy, prevention programs, safe shelters, crisis intervention, counseling and, when indicated, support by the criminal justice system.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. His column focuses on drugs, mental health and substance abuse in an effort to raise better awareness. It appears every other week in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Sierra Sun. He can be reached for comment at adwhyman143@gmail.com.


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