Women experience poor mental health and wellbeing long after leaving violent relationships, domestic violence expert says

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Many women experience poor mental health and wellbeing long after leaving violent partners, a domestic violence expert will tell the 2018 Australian Psychological Society (APS) Congress, held in Sydney, 27-30 September.

Professor Donna Chung from Curtin University, conducted two studies examining the long-term effects of domestic violence on women’s mental health and wellbeing.

The first study surveyed 658 women who had experienced domestic violence and examined its ongoing impact on their mental health, housing situation and employment outcomes. Each participant completed an anonymous online survey that collected quantitative and qualitative data.

Professor Chung says her research found 42 per cent of the women surveyed had received a mental health diagnosis from a medical professional and, crucially, 87 per cent received this diagnosis during a violent relationship or after it ended.

“Most women reported that they began to feel a loss of confidence, symptoms of anxiety and described themselves as being ‘down’ after they experienced violence from a partner. They did not recall such feelings prior to the violence,” she says.

What’s more, 60 per cent of the women experienced post-separation violence for an average of three years, such as harassment, further abuse, stalking, continually being taken to court or not being paid child support. This had an ongoing impact on their mental health – a number of women were also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – as well as their ability to secure housing and remain in employment.

“Women’s capacity to work was really impacted by their mental health issues, which were typically anxiety and depression,” says Professor Chung. “They talked about being on a lot lower income than they had ever anticipated. In some cases, there were women with degrees and postgraduate qualifications either earning low levels of income or fluctuating between receiving welfare payments and casual work.

“Women talked about these effects being life-long or ongoing – like a long shadow that didn’t really leave them. There was a strong sense that life had not turned out the way women had expected.”

The second study analysed data from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health – which has been tracking more than 58,000 women since 1996 – to compare the mental health of women who had experienced domestic violence with the mental health of women who hadn’t experienced domestic violence. The findings revealed significantly higher rates of anxiety and depression among the women who had experienced domestic violence than the women who hadn’t.

Professor Chung, a professor of social work and social policy, says both studies have important implications for supporting women’s mental health and wellbeing after they leave violent partners.

“We’re really oriented to crisis services but once women are physically safe there’s not a lot of long-term support. We don’t have enough post-crisis services to help women recover so they end up in these spirals of poverty,” she says.

“It would be really helpful for women to receive post-crisis support for three to four years to assist them to get back into employment and sort out housing, which impact on mental health, as well as have affordable counselling and support available.”

Professor Donna Chung will speak about the long-term effects of domestic violence on women’s mental health and wellbeing at the 2018 Australian Psychological Society Congress, held in Sydney, 27-30 September.

View the full APS Congress program

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