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Dr. Wood: Domestic violence takes many forms, and often signs take time to appear

Donna Mendenhall (from left), Colleen Rice and Madison Johnson watch guests arrive for the 2015 grand opening celebration of the SafePlace Sexual and Domestic Violence Services headquarters in downtown Olympia. SafePlace is one of the primary agencies to serve domestic violence victims in Thurston County.
Donna Mendenhall (from left), Colleen Rice and Madison Johnson watch guests arrive for the 2015 grand opening celebration of the SafePlace Sexual and Domestic Violence Services headquarters in downtown Olympia. SafePlace is one of the primary agencies to serve domestic violence victims in Thurston County. Olympian file photo

October is national Domestic Violence Awareness Month, also known as Domestic Violence ACTION month, a time for our community to learn more and take action on this serious, preventable public health and safety issue.

Domestic violence, sometimes called intimate partner violence, isn’t just physical abuse, and it isn’t always between couples. Domestic violence includes any effort by an individual to gain or maintain power or control over his or her current or former date, partner or a member of the household. This behavior can include sexual, emotional, economic, or other abuse. The abuse can take other forms as well, such as stalking, cyberstalking, and threats.

When children witness domestic violence in the home, it has serious effects on their health and well-being, both during childhood and later in life. Locally, 18 percent of women and 11 percent of men witnessed this behavior as a child.

Far too many middle and high school students are experiencing dating violence. In Thurston County, 10 percent of eighth graders, 17 percent of 10th graders, and 13 percent of high school seniors say they have been made to feel unsafe by someone they were dating, while about 11 percent of high school students say they have been intentionally hurt by a date. Twelve percent of eighth graders, 18 percent of high school sophomores, and 23 percent of seniors report they’ve been forced to engage in unwanted sexual contact. These figures are all higher among female students.

In Washington state, half of all crimes against people are related to domestic violence. More than 20 percent of Thurston County women, and 8 percent of men, have had an intimate partner intentionally harm them in some way.

According to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a few of the most common ways abusers control their partners are through:

  • Isolation from family and friends;

  • Emotional abuse, such as putting a person down or making them feel worthless;

  • Using children to control the relationship.

Other ways abusers may try to control their partners include:

  • Threatening to harm pets;

  • Undermining employment or threatening legal status;

  • Restricting access to money or resources; and

  • Physical and sexual assault.

There are serious health impacts associated with domestic violence that can result from the constant, toxic stress of being in an abusive relationship, or from an assault. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note a few examples, both immediate and long-term:

  • Death and physical injury;

  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and other mental health concerns;

  • Heart problems;

  • Gastrointestinal issues;

  • Depression;

  • Traumatic brain injury;

  • Reproductive problems.

It’s important to pay attention to warning signs that can show up over a period of time. We can all help by learning about the effects of domestic violence, creating policies in our workplaces, engaging in discussions with family and friends, and supporting victim service providers and those working to hold domestic violence offenders accountable.

One thing you can do to prevent an unhealthy relationship is to better understand what a healthy relationship looks like and to pay attention to warning signs which can show up over a period of time.

For those who are experiencing domestic violence, there is local help available, including:

More resources can be found at the National Domestic Violence Hotline web site: https://www.thehotline.org/.

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, woodr@co.thurston.wa.us, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.
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