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Domestic Abuse Sparks Highly Damaging Changes in Mental Health of Older Women

Researchers from the United Kingdom’s Queen’s University Belfast examined the impact that long-term exposure to intimate partner violence has on the mental health of older women and concluded that affected older women have increased risks for depression as well as increased risks for certain other forms of mental illness.

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence is synonymous with domestic violence; however, the modern term more accurately covers the broad range of circumstances in which such violence can occur. Four types of violent conduct can take place between people currently or previously involved in an intimate relationship: acts centered on physical injury of another person, acts centered on non-consensual sexual contact, acts centered on threats of sexual or physical violence and acts centered on coercion, intimidation, stalking or other forms of emotional/psychological violence. Close to 30 percent of all women in the U.S. have experienced some form of intimate partner violence, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports. The rate of IPV exposure among men is roughly 10 percent. People most likely to commit an act of violence toward an intimate partner include individuals with personal histories of previous participation in violence, individuals victimized by childhood violence, individuals who witness childhood violence, people who regularly drink alcohol in excessive amounts and people involved in other forms of substance use/abuse. Thousands of people die from IPV each year; almost three-quarters of those killed are teenage girls or women.

IPV and Older Women

Exposure to intimate partner violence is fairly common among older women. Figures compiled by the United Nations indicate that roughly 18 percent of women between the ages of 65 and 86 are victims of this form of violence. In any given year, approximately 1 percent of women in the targeted age range experience a violent act perpetrated by a current or former partner. Unfortunately, researchers and public health officials know relatively little about the physical and mental health impacts of IPV for older women. However, currently available evidence indicates that older women subjected to intimate partner violence experience a notable decline in physical and mental health and also experience a substantial increase in their overall mortality rates.

Impact on Mental Health

In the study published in Current Nursing Journal, the Queen’s University Belfast researchers used a small-scale project involving 18 older women to gauge the mental health impact of long-term exposure to intimate partner violence. All of the study participants were currently involved in a relationship with a violent partner or had a history of involvement in such a relationship. The researchers used a detailed interview to probe each woman’s level of exposure to IPV, level of exposure to significant mental health problems and typical methods of coping with a partner’s perpetration of violent acts. The researchers concluded that older women affected by intimate partner violence experience highly damaging changes in their ongoing mental health. Specific potential consequences of long-term IPV exposure at an advanced age include the onset of major depression or other forms of depression, the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the onset of any illness categorized as an anxiety disorder (e.g., social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder). Altogether, fully 75 percent of the study participants self-rated their mental health as “poor.” The study’s authors note that the participating women used several counterproductive methods to deal with the stress of intimate partner violence exposure, including cigarette consumption, heavy alcohol use and heavy drug/medication use. In the long run, these coping strategies do nothing to offset the mental health risks of IPV while substantially boosting the odds for the appearance of substance use disorder (diagnosable substance abuse and/or substance addiction). The authors believe that public health interventions designed to improve older women’s mental health may significantly offset the harm caused by long-term exposure to violent acts perpetrated by one or more intimate partners.

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