It will come as no shock that domestic violence and sexual assault can have a devastating and long-lasting effect on women. But researchers conducting a new study on gender-based violence and mental disorders were taken aback by how strongly the two are linked.
The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was conducted on a sample of Australian women between the ages of 16 and 85. CNN reports that 27% of the subjects said they'd experienced sexual assault, stalking, or another form of gender-based violence at least once in their lives. The rates of mental illness among this group were disturbingly high:
Fifty-seven percent of the women with a history of abuse also had a history of depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, or anxiety (including panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder), versus 28% of the women who had not experienced gender-based violence.
Among women who had been exposed to at least three different types of violence, the rate of mental disorders or substance abuse rose to 89%.
Lead author Dr. Susan Rees, a senior research fellow in psychiatry at the University of New South Wales, said that the research should be applicable to women in the U.S. as well, since rates of these types of crimes are similar in the U.S. and Australia.
The researchers couldn't say definitively if the acts of violence caused the women's mental health problems, or if those with preexisting conditions were more likely to experience violence. However, Rees noted that there is "ample evidence" that trauma can trigger mental problems. And while gender-based violence often takes place early in life, mental disorders can take years to surface.
Dr. Andrea Gielen, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins, who wasn't involved in the study, says it shows that doctors need to develop more comprehensive methods that treat victims of domestic violence and sexual assault even after their visible injuries have healed. Thankfully the U.S. is already making some efforts to address this problem. Though full coverage for birth control was the big story to come out of the new guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services on women's preventive services, it also mandates that new health insurance polices must cover screening and counseling for domestic violence. Of course, what we really need is for there to be less tolerance of violence against women and shame surrounding the victims. As Gielen says, the report shows gender-based crimes have a profound effect on all of us by underscoring, "the impact on society as more than just the immediate consequences, more than just treating women in an emergency department for a violent injury."