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Domestic Violence And Mental Health

8 February 2006

Domestic Violence And Mental Health

Latest research from the long-running Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS) at the University of Otago’s Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, calls into question conventional thinking about domestic violence between partners, and its effects on mental health.

This study by Professor David Fergusson, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, surveyed 828 males and females at 25 years regarding violence between partners and the impact on mental health. The violence recorded ranged from psychological abuse to serious physical attack.

“In broad terms the results provide a challenge to the dominant view that domestic violence is a ‘women’s issue’, and that it arises predominantly from assaults by males against females,” says Prof. Fergusson.

“In fact, what our findings suggest is that amongst young adults, men and women are equally violent towards partners, in terms of the range of acts of domestic violence examined in this study.”

The research shows the range of violence committed by men and women is similar, and that both men and women engage in serious physical attacks on their partners. The consequences of this domestic violence in terms of injury and psychological effects are also similar for both sexes.

The findings confirm other overseas studies that violent partnerships are more likely to be associated with psychosocial problems relating to childhood adversity, mental health disorders and other life course difficulties.

“Domestic violence tends to occur in those relationships which have a wider psychosocial history of disadvantage and difficulty,” says Professor Fergusson.

The research shows that domestic violence also has an impact on the mental health of those involved, even when other background factors, which might result in mental problems, are taken into account. With increasing exposure to violence there is a greater likelihood of mental health problems developing in both men and women.

Disorders such as depression, anxiety and suicide are between 1.5 and 11.9 times higher in those people who experience domestic violence than those who don’t.

However, Professor Fergusson says this study suggests the need for a broadening of analysis of domestic violence away from focussing on male perpetrators and female victims, to examining violent couples who use aggression in their relationship.

“This points to family policies that encourage couples to work together to harmonise their relationships and to overcome the collective adversities they face.”

Professor Fergussion says we need to understand why studies of community samples such as the CHDS usually show an absence of gender differences in domestic violence, whereas other sources dealing with severe violence, such as Women’s Refuge or police complaints, report a predominance of male perpetrators.

“The best way of doing this is to study a large sample to examine the frequency of common couple violence involving mutual assaults and the frequency of more severe forms of domestic violence,” he says. This study only applies to young people, and domestic violence tends to decrease with age.

The research was funded by the Health Research Council, the National Child Health Research Foundation, the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation and the Lottery Grants Board.


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