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Domestic abuse and mental health – Depression

People who experience domestic abuse are much more likely to experience depression than the general population. Such a simple statement and one which will have people nodding along (at least those who know about domestic abuse!). It makes sense though, doesn’t it, that people who have been abused may be more likely to feel down, have little energy, feel bad about themselves, perhaps have trouble concentrating, or have issues with sleep, or even wonder if they should still be alive. Facing daily criticism, constant undermining, and threats to their physical and emotional wellbeing is going to be extremely wearing for anyone. As you can imagine, depression during or after domestic abuse can form due to many different factors and when we are counselling people it is important that we understand the wider context of how and why depression may have occurred.


There are many theories of depression, including biological/genetic and psychological views and it can be complicated to work out the main contributor. For example, there is evidence to suggest that depression can run in families suggesting a genetic predisposition, yet there is also evidence to suggest that intergenerational transmission of violence can occur. This can provide an interesting discourse on whether nature (genetics) or nurture (upbringing) is more influential in prompting depressive episodes within abusive relationships. Theories around production of cortisol in stressful situations (of which there can be many in abusive relationships) and the long term impact of that on the body also suggest that there is a potential overlap between physiological responses and the environment which could affect whole families as well as individuals. It is also worth noting that living in a constantly abusive relationship at any point in someone’s life could make them more vulnerable to depression because of the impact of such stress, whatever their childhood environment. Hence, depression could have a biological and/or environmental root. Simplistically, this suggests that finding ways to reduce stress, change behaviours and change the environment could have a very positive impact on mental health, but this is not a straight-forward solution to someone living with abuse.


Living with an abuser can reduce a person’s ability to make changes as they find themselves reacting to the situation rather than being able to plan from day to day, and they continually have their confidence in their ability to be able to do things undermined. Abusers are also reluctant to change their own behaviours and therefore put the onus on the abused to ‘make things right’, which is an ‘impossible’ task and further undermines their confidence. This makes it almost impossible for the person to change their environment unless they leave. However, there are many social, economic, and emotional factors which can make leaving difficult. Instead, a trip to the GP to report depressive symptoms may result in a prescription to ease the symptoms but will not necessarily relieve the underlying factors prompting the depression or facilitate change.


As well as the environment within the relationship and the impact of that day to day on the person being abused, there may also be personal factors emerging from the person’s experience that can bring about depressive feelings. For example, as the truth about the relationship emerges, the person may start to realise that the relationship they had hoped for is not now going to happen and there is a period of grief for the relationship that they had believed was possible. In addition, they may not recognise themselves now when they think back to what they were like prior to the relationship. This too can bring grief, as they mourn the loss of the person they once were, as well as the time that they had spent in a relationship which did not, and could not, meet their needs. This grief may include the time they had not spent with friends and family due to the isolation of living with the abuser and the recognition that such time could never be reclaimed, particularly in the case of life events missed during that time. Whilst some people may regard leaving the relationship as creating the new start required which will left spirits, the reality of other people’s experience is a continual feeling of not being good enough, of not being able to make appropriate decisions or be trusted to get things right, together with grief over what might have been and what has been lost. These feelings can continue for some time post relationship and can be processed as part of therapy when help is sought.


From this description, I hope you can see that depressive symptoms can occur for different reasons within individuals and that assumptions about how or why depression may have evolved cannot be made. Counsellors and psychotherapists need an understanding of what it might be like to live in an abusive relationship so that they can explore the client experience appropriately and help the client to understand not only what is making them unhappy, but also why. It is often in understanding the why that people can let go of their beliefs that somehow they were responsible for the abuse, together with recognising that anyone who had had those experiences would also feel very down i.e. they are not weak, they are simply responding to the situation.


If anyone reading this recognises these experiences and the impact that this is having on them personally or to someone they love, then please do consider counselling with our specialist counsellors at Dactari. Simply contact us to book a preliminary call where we can explore how we can help you. See www.dactari.co.uk/online-counselling.


Jeannette Roddy

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