Here’s How Intimate Partner Violence Impacts Survivors’ Mental Health
More than one in three people assigned female at birth and one in four assigned male at birth experience domestic violence. Learn about the many ways that can impact mental health.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
October 16, 2023
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If you or someone you know is experiencing any type of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) for anonymous, confidential help available 24/7.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time to advocate for increased knowledge, research, support, and prevention efforts in relation to intimate partner violence (IPV)—a devastating yet all-too-common experience in many romantic relationships.
If you’ve experienced IPV, you’re not alone. The unfortunate reality is that more than one in three people assigned female at birth and one in four people assigned male at birth have experienced some form of IPV, data shows. Rates are even higher for transgender and nonbinary individuals, over half of whom experience IPV, according to reports. Among young people in particular, approximately one in 12 high schoolers may experience physical violence in relationships, and one in 12 may experience sexual violence in relationships.
While the prevalence of IPV is concerning all on its own, it also leads to higher rates of mental health challenges ranging from increased anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this article, we’re following the lead of Domestic Violence Awareness Month and spreading awareness about what IPV can look like, the mental health effects of IPV, and what treatments and resources are available for survivors.
What is intimate partner violence?
IPV, which is sometimes referred to as domestic violence or domestic abuse, is any form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence committed against a current or former romantic partner.
Someone may experience various kinds of IPV, including the following:
- Physical abuse: Hitting, kicking, or using physical force
- Sexual abuse: Non-consensual sexual activity (physical or using a technology like sexting)
- Stalking: Watching, following, or harassment
- Emotional abuse: Verbal and non-verbal communication intended to harm or control
The mental health effects of intimate partner violence
According to a recent commission on IPV and mental health, research shows an association between experiencing IPV and mental health challenges—although not all survivors have mental health challenges.
People assigned female at birth are not only more likely to experience IPV but also more likely to have related mental health challenges. People who experience different kinds of relationship abuse may have higher rates of mental health challenges. Continued IPV exposure can also lead to more severe and long-standing mental health challenges.
Survivors of IPV are more likely to experience:
- Substance use disorder
- Personality disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder)
In addition to the symptoms above, survivors of IPV may also be more likely to self-harm or experience suicidality. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts and think you’re in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency, and you should contact 988, The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
Children of people who experience IPV also have an increased risk of developing mental health challenges. Additionally, there may be more family violence in households with IPV. A parent who commits IPV is also more likely to be violent, abusive, or neglectful with their children, which can also worsen mental health.
In some cases, the diagnosis of a survivor of IPV with a mental health condition may be used against the survivor to make the perpetrator look better or assert control over the survivor. This possibility may be a contributing factor to the underreporting of IPV, according to experts.
Healing emotionally from intimate partner violence
A 2019 report from the American Psychiatric Association on mental health support for IPV survivors examined the available evidence and outlined effective treatments, which are outlined below.
Therapy has been shown to help survivors process and address trauma from IPV as well as other co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Mental health symptoms caused by IPV, like anxiety and depression, can sometimes be better managed with medication.
Whether it’s therapy or medication, all mental health services provided to IPV survivors should take into account their experience of trauma.
According to a 2020 Cochrane review—a leading provider of information on evidence-based treatments—psychotherapy is an effective treatment for IPV survivors. Several forms of psychotherapy have been explored and validated for survivors of trauma or IPV.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapeutic treatment for anxiety disorders, including PTSD. In CBT, the focus is on identifying and changing the negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to emotional distress.
Additional CBT-based therapies have been proven effective for survivors of trauma, including Skills Training in Affective and Interpersonal Regulation (STAIR), Helping to Overcome PTSD through Empowerment (HOPE), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), and Cognitive Trauma Therapy for Battered Women (CTT-BW). This last term has become less used over time as experts realized its insensitivity to IPV survivors.
HOPE has been studied among IPV survivors in shelters with positive results, and CPT is effective for survivors of any kind of interpersonal victimization. CTT-BW, which was specifically designed for IPV survivors, has been shown to help with PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and quality of life.
Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on strategies for relationship issues caused by depression. When used to treat PTSD, IPT can help with grief, relationship challenges, life transitions, loneliness, and social support.
Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) is a kind of psychotherapy that involves trauma processing to relieve symptoms of adverse childhood experiences, PTSD, or complex PTSD. In EMDR, a trained professional guides clients safely through traumatic memories with bilateral (impacting both sides) stimulation to decrease the emotional intensity of triggers.
Culturally relevant therapies
While all therapies can and should be provided with cultural sensitivity and relevance in mind, several mental health support programs have been developed to support survivors of IPV and other forms of trauma from specific populations:
- Relapse Prevention and Relationship Safety (RPRS) was created for low-income Black and Latine people assigned female at birth to help with relationship safety, PTSD, depression, substance use, and “higher-risk” sexual behaviors.
- The Grady Nia Project was created for low-income Black IPV survivors who also experience suicidality.
Mental health symptoms caused by IPV can sometimes be better managed with medication. Possible psychopharmacological treatments for IPV survivors include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and sleep medications, typically in combination with psychotherapy.
All mental health services provided to IPV survivors, whether therapy or psychopharmacological treatment, should take a trauma-informed approach. Trauma-informed care must always incorporate “the four R’s”:
- Realizing trauma’s full impact and different treatment paths.
- Recognizing trauma’s signs and symptoms.
- Responding with full integration of trauma knowledge into any practice.
- Resisting re-traumatization.
Unfortunately, experts have only scratched the surface of all there is to know about treating mental health symptoms in survivors of IPV. Future research should center on the experiences of IPV survivors and involve more studies that specifically investigate the effectiveness of mental health treatments in that population.
Getting support for intimate partner violence at Charlie Health
If you’re a survivor of IPV, Charlie Health is here for you.
Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers more than once-weekly support for young people experiencing a range of significant mental health issues, including those that stem from IPV and other forms of trauma. Charlie Health is run by a compassionate team of trauma-informed mental health professionals who personalize care plans based on the individual’s needs and preferences. All clients are matched with a skilled therapist for weekly individual and family therapy, as well as supported group sessions with other clients with shared mental health conditions.
At Charlie Health, we believe that effective mental health treatment should be accessible for everyone. In service of that goal, we accept many major insurance and Medicaid plans. If care with Charlie Health isn’t accessible for you or your loved one, we’ll help you find an option that is.
Additional resources for IPV survivors
If you or someone you know is experiencing IPV, there are resources available that can help with safety and support:
- The Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services
- Break the Cycle
- Casa de Esperanza
- The Domestic Violence Initiative
- INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
- The National Child Abuse Hotline/Childhelp
- The National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health
- The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- The National Dating Abuse Helpline
- The National Deaf Domestic Violence Hotline
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline
- Safe Horizon
- The Women’s Law Organization