Many times, we don’t even know their name or story until they make the news. We might judge them for being too weak to break free from an abusive environment, but we know too little about the terrifying impact domestic violence has on women’s health and well-being.
“I felt like I was nothing and feared for my life every day. I realised he completely controlled me, and I felt there was no point in living.” It’s hard to even listen to a story such as Steph’s—marked by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, the relationship with her first partner was the reason she tried to take her own life several times. Her actions were not attempts to attract attention or ask for help, but came from a desperate desire to end the life she was living.
More than a decade after this abusive relationship, Steph takes stock of her life, realising that violence is the language she’s known since birth, and that she unconsciously followed a pattern that had led her to relationships during which she was constantly abused.
Suicidal ideation and acts are more common than we might imagine in women who have been abused by their partners, according to a recent study on the mental health of adults in the UK. This is the first academic research in the UK to highlight the close relationship between domestic abuse and suicide and was carried out by Sally McManus, a senior lecturer in health at the Violence and Society Centre based at City, University of London.
Domestic violence and its effects on mental health
Domestic abuse has reached epidemic proportions and it is “shameful” that the clear link between domestic abuse and suicidal ideation, attempts and acts among women has not been recognised as a public health crisis, said Jess Southgate, Deputy CEO of Agenda Alliance.
Women who experienced domestic violence (or what the World Health Organization calls “intimate partner violence”) were three times more likely to attempt suicide in the past year than those who were not victims of domestic abuse, the study found. Also, women subjected to domestic abuse had twice the risk of having suicidal thoughts and three times the risk of non-suicidal self-harm compared to women who had not experienced domestic violence.
The strongest association between intimate partner violence and self-harm or suicide occurs in the case of sexual abuse (this form of abuse is ten times more common in women than in men). Women who were sexually abused by their partners had a seven-times greater risk of suicide than those who were not victims of sexual violence in a relationship.
According to the study, women who are unemployed, struggling with poverty, who cannot work due to illness or disability or who have debt represent the categories most exposed to domestic abuse.
The link between domestic abuse and suicide has long been overlooked, given that three-quarters of those who commit suicide are men, concludes Southgate, pointing out that this study highlights the long-term impact of abuse on mental health.
Domestic violence, “a global public health problem”
More than one in four women experience domestic violence before the age of 50—this and other shocking data were delivered by a study published in 2022, one of the most comprehensive on the subject.
Published in The Lancet magazine, the study analysed data collected—within 366 unique studies—from over 2 million women in 161 countries and areas, thus covering 90% of the global female population. The results estimate that 27% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime, with 13% (almost 500 million women) experiencing it in the year before they were surveyed.
Abusive treatment of women in relationships starts at a young age: 24% of girls and women aged 15 to 19 and 26% of those aged 19 to 24 have experienced partner violence at least once starting from the age of 15.
The study showed that there are significant regional variations in the prevalence of domestic violence—49% of women in Oceania and 44% of women in sub-Saharan Africa have been subjected to physical or sexual violence (or both) by an intimate partner. The regions with the fewest cases of domestic violence were Central Europe (16%) and Central Asia (18%). Among the 12 countries with the lowest prevalence of domestic violence are Georgia and Armenia (both with 10%), Singapore (12%), Switzerland (12%), Poland (13%), and Cuba (14%).
The studies are based on self-reported data, and because victims of domestic violence face societal stigma, the magnitude of this phenomenon could be even greater, the researchers say.
On average, a victim returns to an abusive partner seven times before leaving them for good, experts say, stressing that we need to not judge the victims, but to listen to them and offer them all the support they need to make the right decisions.
From the outside, the victim’s hesitations may seem difficult to understand, if one does not take into account how extremely harmful the effect is (including in terms of mental health) of violence exerted on a person by the one who should protect them the most. In addition, many women face abuse from their partner at a very young age, during the stages in which the foundations of healthy relationships are being built, as researcher LynnMarie Sardinha points out.
“We don’t think these things happen to us until they do. And yet it’s happening every day, in our backyards and bedrooms,” writes Amy Butcher, author of a book on domestic violence.
If this abuse doesn’t happen in our house, but in the neighbour’s house, we need the same courage we demand from the victims. The courage to listen, the courage to intervene, and the courage to inform ourselves when we do not know what services and resources the victim can access.